Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

Why Didn’t Mario Run? That Was Always The Question

To run, or not to run? That seems, even today, to be the question.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s death yesterday has sparked a wave of nostalgia, particularly among old-school liberals, regarding what might have been.  If only Cuomo had run for president in 1992! (Or 1988, for that matter.) Given his name recognition, outstanding rhetorical skills and stature as a big-state governor, he would have almost certainly secured the Democratic nomination and defeated the incumbent president George H. W. Bush. Instead, the “Hamlet-on-the-Hudson”, showing characteristic indecisiveness, dithered away the opportunity, thus allowing the much more moderate (and ethically challenged) Bill Clinton to win election in a three-way race with Bush and Ross Perot, thereby ushering in eight years of Republican-lite policies, eventually Republican congressional control and, not incidentally, an impeachment scandal.

It is easy to understand why Cuomo’s death evokes these feelings, and why old guard liberals in particular still grow wistful reminiscing about the prospect of a Cuomo presidency. As I was reminded today in listening to clips of Cuomo from his frequent appearances with Alan Chartock on the Albany-based public radio station WAMC, the Governor was an engaging, erudite (albeit often prickly) individual who never lost touch with his working class ethnic roots. Perhaps no speech brought out these qualities more effectively than did his much-praised “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address on behalf of Walter Mondale at the 1984 presidential convention, an excerpt of which you can see here.

So why didn’t Cuomo run? When, in December 1991, on the cusp of the filing deadline for the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Cuomo announced his decision not to seek the presidency, he cited his obligations as Governor of New York, noting in particular the need to negotiate a solution with statehouse Republicans to a burgeoning budget deficit. Disappointed supporters argued that this essentially allowed New York Republicans to hold Cuomo’s presidential ambitions hostage to their obstructionist budget tactics. Many felt there had to be a deeper reason to explain Cuomo’s decision – a skeleton in the closet perhaps, or an unwillingness to do the dirty work necessary to win election.

I’ve always felt there was a simpler, more prosaic explanation for Cuomo’s reluctance to run – one that usually proves decisive for most politicians contemplating a campaign for higher office: he didn’t think he could win. The plain fact is that despite his many strong qualities, Cuomo was a northeast, big government New Deal liberal governing – and contemplating a presidential run – in the age of Reagan. It was never very clear how well this brand of liberalism would play on the national stage at that time. For what it is worth, national polls did not find much public support for Democrats nominating a “liberal” as opposed to a more moderate presidential candidate. The two previous presidential elections saw a liberal Senator Walter Mondale and a liberal Governor (at least on social issues) Michael Dukakis beaten by Republicans Reagan and Bush, respectively. And in 1980, the “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy had failed to wrest the Democratic nomination from Jimmy Carter. To be sure, in late 1991 President Bush was far more vulnerable than he was three years earlier, to say nothing of Reagan in 1984. But at the time Cuomo made his decision not to run, polls still had Bush defeating him in a head-to-head matchup although Bush’s lead over his potential Democratic rivals was shrinking. Ultimately, however, it was Bill Clinton, a moderate member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who won the 1992 election while espousing a “third way” of politics predicated on rejecting the left-leaning policies embraced by Mondale and other Democratic liberals.  Cuomo, meanwhile, was defeated two years later in a bid for a 4th term by “no-name” Republican George Pataki.

Indeed, it was never certain that Cuomo, despite his superior name recognition, would even win the Democratic nomination. Although initial polls showed him winning about 30% of the vote compared to his Democratic rivals, that may have represented Cuomo’s ceiling, much as Howard Dean seemed unable to break the 25% level when he led the Democratic field in late 2003. Certainly Cuomo’s support was much less in the South where Clinton ran exceptionally well. Indeed, many pundits at that time suggested that the only Democrats who could win the presidency were moderate southern politicians. In his oral history, former Bush chief of staff John Sununu remembers meeting with Bush advisers early in 1991 to discuss the upcoming reelection campaign: “The last thing we did is everybody went around the table and said whom they thought was going to get the nomination on the Democratic side and everybody was saying Cuomo, and I said Clinton. And they said, Who is Clinton? And I said, If Cuomo runs in the primary against Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton will eat his lunch… That’s how out of touch they were with the real threat that was there.” Sandy Berger, who would later become Clinton’s national security adviser, recalled that Clinton, who never lacked for confidence, wanted Cuomo to run so that Clinton could position himself as the giant killer.

It is, of course, impossible to know with certainty what the outcome of a Clinton-Cuomo nomination fight would have been, but if one replays the sequence of primaries, particularly the southern-focused “Super Tuesday” contests, it seems apparent that Cuomo faced a very difficult path to victory. This won’t stop Cuomo backers from lamenting what might have been. To run, or not to run? With Mario, it seems, that remains the enduring question. Alas, it will forever remain unanswered.

A Single Payer Health Care System: As Vermont Goes….?

As Vermont goes, so goes the nation?

Back in 2010, as many of you may know, Peter Shumlin narrowly won election as Vermont governor in part on a promise to implement a single payer health coverage system run by the state. Although the term “single payer” can encompass a range of plans, the essential idea is that the state would institute a system of public financing to pay for universal health care coverage. In May, 2011, the Vermont legislature committed itself to implementing such as system when it passed, and Shumlin signed into law, Act 48 which laid out the basic principles underlying a single payer plan.

Advocates saw Vermont as the ideal laboratory for hatching a single payer system that might even serve as a role model for other states. As they often pointed out, Vermont had a strong progressive record of “firsts” – the first state to mandate public financing for universal education in its constitution, the first to outlaw slavery in its constitution, the first to introduce civil unions for same-sex couples, and even the first to legislate in favor of gay marriages (as opposed to getting there through court order.) Could a single-payer health system be the next first? In a piece she wrote last April on Vermont’s single payer proposal, the Vox’s Sarah Kliff  quoted Shumlin saying, “If Vermont gets single-payer health care right, which I believe we will, other states will follow. If we screw it up, it will set back this effort for a long time. So I know we have a tremendous amount of responsibility, not only to Vermonters.”

But then came the hard part: figuring out how to raise the estimated $1.6-$2 billion needed to get the plan up and running by the 2017 target date. After Shumlin missed a 2013 deadline for revealing exactly how the state planned to finance the reform, criticism mounted that the costs were likely to be much higher than initial estimates suggested. In the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, long-shot political novice Scott Milne, Shumlin’s Republican rival, hammered away at the incumbent governor on this issue, repeatedly arguing that Shumlin knew that single payer “was dead”. In an interview on Nov. 1, Milne reportedly said, “During the campaign I said that single-payer is dead — I’m telling you that now, and Peter Shumlin’s going to wait until after the election.” And, in an outcome that surprised almost everyone, Milne came within a bit more than 2,000 votes in unseating the incumbent. Indeed, analysts suggested that without the presence of the Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano, who earned more than 8,000 votes, Milne would have become Vermont’s next governor. But the race is not over. Under Vermont law, because no gubernatorial candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote, the newly-elected legislature will decide the race by secret ballot in early January. In a move that has surprised even some of his strongest supporters, Milne has announced that he is not willing to concede the race to Shumlin.

It was against this backdrop that, last Wednesday, in a news conference in the Statehouse, Shumlin dropped a bombshell by admitting, in effect, that the state had “screwed up.” He announced that the state would forego, at least for now, any effort to implement a single-payer system.
The reason, Shumlin acknowledged, was precisely what critics had long maintained: the plan was fiscally untenable. According to the governor, the most recent studies indicate a single payer system would require an 11.5% payroll tax on businesses and a sliding income tax that would tax some wage earners up to 9.5% on top of the existing state income tax. Moreover, some small business owners who do not now provide health coverage would take a double whammy by getting hit with both income and payroll tax hikes. All told the price tag for a single-payer system was now estimated to be $2.6 billion in a state with revenues totaling about $2 billion a year.

Not surprisingly, advocates for a single health care plan felt betrayed by Shumlin’s reversal, and vowed to push forward with the plan through legislative action.  Opponents, meanwhile, voiced a loud “We told you so.” As with health care reform nationally, polls suggested the public was divided on the Vermont plan, with approval rates varying depending on how the poll question was worded. The immediate issue, of course, is what impact, if any, Shumlin’s announcement will have on the legislative vote on January 8 to determine the next governor. I have no doubt that Milne is right – Shumlin certainly knew for weeks, if not months, that the numbers would not add up but like any smart politician he withheld the bad news until after the election. By announcing the death of single payer now, however, he may have removed a political weight from the shoulders of many Democratic legislators who probably did not relish having to vote on a single-payer financing system in the coming legislative session. Some are even lauding Shumlin for his political “courage” in making the announcement now. This, in my view, is a dubious claim – real courage would have meant making the announcement before the November election. However, I doubt many legislators are going to vote against Shumlin for governor on the basis of this one announcement, and it might even shore up support among some who are relieved that the issue has been removed, at least for now. We’ll know soon enough.

As for the broader lessons from this ill-fated effort,  supporters and skeptics alike are left wondering if a single-payer system lacked political support in a liberal-leaning deep-blue state like Vermont, what chance does it have in any U.S. state? However, I think this misses the real lesson of the Vermont experience. One of the reasons why the Vermont plan proved fiscally unworkable is that the latest estimates showed that in part because of Obamacare, the state would get $150 million less in federal health care aid than anticipated earlier, as well as $150 million less in Medicaid assistance. Other difficulties included how to pay for coverage for non-residents who were employed in Vermont. These problems point to the difficulty of enacting a state-based single-payer plan in a health care system that is inextricably bound up with a national economy and which is struggling to implement a national health care reform plan. As it turns out, many of the factors cited for why a single payer system might work in Vermont – its small population and progressive leanings – mattered a lot less than supporters understood.  Indeed, Vermont’s small economy might make it more susceptible to national economic forces. The plain fact is that it is going to be difficult for any state, no matter what its ideological leanings and fiscal health, to move ahead by itself with comprehensive health care reform. In the end, health care is primarily a national issue and if single-payer is the way to go, it is likely going to have to happen at the national level. That, I think, is the lesson to take from the Vermont experience.

Was Obamacare Worth It? Some Democrats Think Not.

I’m up today at US News with a new post that serves as a sequel of sorts to an earlier post I wrote discussing the impact of Obama’s policy agenda on Democrats’ loss of control of Congress. In recent days Democrats such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer have openly questioned whether Obamacare was worth the political price paid for its passage.  Drawing on data compiled by Middlebury College student Tina Berger, I showed that during Obama’s six years as president Democrats had lost more than 25% of the seats they had started with when Obama first took office. That was the second greatest proportion of seats lost, exceeded only by Eisenhower, during a president’s time in office during the post-Hoover modern presidential era. A primary cause of the loss of partisan support, I suggested, was Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite its controversial nature and uneven political support.

In response, the New York Times Brendan Nyhan wondered whether the erosion of Democratic support might vary across the two congressional chambers, with losses greater in either the House or the Senate. The short answer is no – he’s lost about equal support across his presidency in the Senate and the House, at least in terms of modern rankings, as the following graphs constructed by Berger indicate.  Here’s the percentage of House seats lost:

HouseAnd here’s the Senate seats lost:

 

SenateClearly Obama has been an equal opportunity president.

Mo Fiorina, meanwhile, pointed out that rather than speculate regarding why Democrats lost so many seats, I could have cited some research that points directly to Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform as a primary cause of Democrats losing control of the House and, I would add, contributing to the loss of the Senate too.  In my U.S. News post, I make amends by delving a bit more deeply into that research.  The gist of it suggests that health care and climate change legislation might have cost Democrats some 20-40 House seats in 2010.

Sill, this is not necessarily meant to suggest that pursuing health care reform was a mistake. As I discuss in the U.S. News post, the key issue is whether Obama, in deciding whether to embark on health care reform, fully anticipated the political cost his party would pay for doing so. This is the crucial point the late, great presidency scholar Richard Neustadt makes in his classic work Presidential Power: presidents ought not to be judged solely on their ability to achieve a treasured legislative objective. They must also be assessed on whether they understood the likely consequences of achieving that objective on their future bargaining prospects. Did Obama understand that in pursuing health care reform he would likely cost his party its House majority and, perhaps, control of the Senate as well? These are not easy questions to answer, of course; when making these decisions presidents are operating under conditions of great uncertainty. Surely Obama could not have anticipated the botched rollout of Obamacare, for instance. Still, Neustadt’s analysis suggests that these are questions any president must ask before embarking down the legislative road of significant policy change. In the case of health care reform, it’s not clear to me whether Obama tried hard enough to find an answer.

Pssst, Mitt: It Takes 23 People to Vet One Of My Posts!

Before I can post any essay at my Presidential Power site, it needs to pass through a rigorous vetting by a host of people on my blogging team. This includes fact-checking by my team of research assistants, and a legal review by my lawyers looking for potential libel issues. I have a technical staff that helps with uploading charts, tables and YouTube videos. I usually run it by my kids to be sure I don’t embarrass them with any awkward references to their upbringing. My diversity coach needs to weigh in as well to be sure I include some reference to historically marginalized groups. Then Miss Grundy, my 5th grade high school English teacher, will give it a close read to ferret out any split infinitives, misplaced prepositions and the like. I then send the draft to my high school gym teacher, in an effort to show him I’m really not “a worthless and weak pencil-necked geek”. As a last check for relevance to popular culture, I’ll pick a random person at the checkout line of the local grocery store to give it a read. Finally, I send it to Mom via traditional mail because, well, she’s my Mom and I know she’ll call me to say “it’s wonderful!” In short, only after 23 people have reviewed my draft post do I feel comfortable uploading it. Sure, it’s a tedious process, but it’s necessary given the size of my readership and the potential damage that one inadvertent phrase in my post can have on world affairs.

Sound ridiculous? Of course – but only slightly more so than what recent media reports have led us to believe regarding the process the Romney presidential campaign purportedly put in place before it allowed any tweet to go out during the 2012 presidential race. According to the former Romney “digital integration director” Caitlin Checkett, as quoted in this published academic paper by communications scholar Daniel Kreiss, “So whether it was a tweet, Facebook post, blog post, photo—anything you could imagine—it had to be sent around to everyone for approval. Towards the end of the campaign that was 22 individuals who had to approve it. … The digital team unfortunately did not have the opportunity to think of things on their own and post them. … The downfall of that of course is as fast as we are moving it can take a little bit of time to get that approval to happen.”

The first reference I saw to this story was two days ago in this tweet by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan who simply posted that quote and linked to the actual article.  Within hours references to the 22-person twitter claim had popped up, by my count, in more than two dozen media outlets, ranging from the Washington Post to MSNBC to the HuffingtonPost and USA Today. In addition, several of my students forwarded links to the story to me. As far as I can tell, most of these outlets simply repeated the quote without bothering to check with other Romney campaign aides to see whether the process described by this aide was actually in place. As it was, Romney’s chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens had almost immediately tweeted that the story wasn’t accurate, but this didn’t seem to make it into any of the online coverage.

Why did this story take off so fast? My guess is because it fit with a prevailing sentiment among bloggers and pundits that it was the ineffectiveness of the Romney campaign that led to his loss in 2012 despite a weak economic recovery that usually would have cost the incumbent president reelection. That narrative, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is almost certainly wrong; the notion that disparities in campaign effectiveness is what cost Romney the victory is simply not supported by any evidence that I’ve seen. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck make a similar argument in their book The Gamble when in reviewing the available evidence regarding campaign effectiveness, particularly during the summer of 2012, they conclude, “The reason that the polls were so stable is that the Obama and Romney campaigns were fairly evenly matched.”

Indeed, the real irony here is that if the pundits citing the 22-person reference had actually read Kreiss’ article, they would have found that he paints a more favorable picture of the Romney digital team than this one heavily tweeted quote suggests. Kreiss notes, for instance, how well prepared Romney’s digital team was to capitalize on social media during and after Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate. More generally, Kreiss’ account shows a Romney digital staff that seemed in some respects quite nimble in adapting to the twitter-driven coverage that grew so prevalent during the 2012 campaign. (Kreiss’ paper is well worth reading for its description of how both campaigns sought to win the recurring “two-hour” cycle of social media coverage.)

It is evident that many pundits, reacting to the pressure of publishing in the compressed media cycle that characterizes the digital age, did not bother to read the Kreiss article closely and instead simply relayed the initial twitter excerpt that fit with the prevailing conventional wisdom regarding how the data-driven, digital-savvy Obama campaign ran circles around poor Mitt’s antiquated analog-based outfit. Moreover, few of them seemed to bother to reach out, via a simple email (as I did) to members of the Romney campaign team to verify the story. If they had they might have come to different conclusions, or at least presented another side to the story. (To be fair, some of the news outlets did seem to make an effort to scan Kreiss’ paper, although not many seemed to bother to confirm the 22-person tweet claim.)

Not only did many pundits not engage in basic fact-checking – some went on to use the 22-person twitter narrative to draw additional conclusions about how a President Romney might have conducted his presidency. In a line of reasoning that was repeated in various forms by other news outlets, the Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, “Still, having 17 to 22 people vet each tweet seems like a bit of an overcorrection, and makes one wonder what Romney’s management style would have been like in the White House.” I’ve done extensive research on how presidents manage the White House, and it’s not clear to me that one can say much about a president’s organizational effectiveness based on how his campaign ran social media. As evidence, one need look no further than Obama’s presidency. After extolling the digital savvy that apparently characterized Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, pundits are now giving him poor reviews as a White House manager. Evidently Obama’s campaign effectiveness did not translate very well into running the presidency!

Let me be clear. I don’t know how the Romney team ran its digital social media campaign, although I confess that I am skeptical that 22 people had to sign off on each tweet, Facebook post or blog. However, the real lesson from Kreiss’ paper, it seems to me, is how both campaigns sought to use social media to influence how journalists covered the presidential race. Too often, it appears, journalists used dubious metrics, such as tweets, as a barometer for how the campaigns were doing among the general public. In so doing they left themselves open to manipulation by both campaigns’ digital outreach efforts. Judging by the overreaction in the online punditocracy to tweets about the Kreiss article, many media pundits have yet to learn this basic lesson.

The Real Reason Obama Chucked Hagel

As the news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had resigned “under pressure” spread, media sources immediately characterized his departure in terms of a combination of personality clashes and policy disputes. Thus, the New York Times, citing White House sources, reported the story this way: “The officials characterized the decision as recognition that the threat from the Islamic State will require different skills from those that Mr. Hagel, who often struggled to articulate a clear viewpoint and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary, was brought in to employ.” The Times’ reporter went on to note that “Mr. Hagel struggled to fit in with Mr. Obama’s close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration.”

The problem with this explanation is that it was Hagel’s low-key demeanor that made him particularly appealing to Obama, who had clashed with Hagel’s two predecessors at Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both of whom were more vocal defenders of their policy views and institutional interests. Now we are led to believe that it was precisely this close-to-the-vest approach that cost Hagel his job.

So, why was Hagel jettisoned, if not because of his “passive” administrative style? The more likely reason is that Hagel fell victim to a more fundamental tension affecting relations between many modern presidents and their cabinet members, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. As evidence, consider that Obama’s two previous defense secretaries, Gates and Panetta, had job tenures not much different in length than Hagel’s despite their different demeanors; Gates tenure under Obama lasted a bit more than two years (he served previously under Bush), while Panetta left before the two-year mark. Hagel’s tenure will fall between these two. In the modern era, defense secretaries serve, on average, about 2 ½ years, so Hagel’s tenure was shorter than usual, but not by much.

Nonetheless, Obama will have gone through at least four defense secretaries, tied with Nixon and Truman for the most for any modern president dating back to the creation of this position during Truman’s administration. The high turnover reflects the difficulty presidents have in balancing two competing needs from their advisers. On the one hand, they need information and expertise from their foreign policy agencies that is untainted by partisan or institutional slant. On the other, they want to be sure their advisers are loyal to the president’s policy and political objectives. In practice, it is difficult to calibrate an advisory system so that both needs are fulfilled. The reality is that over the course of their presidency, presidents increasingly rely on their core political supporters located in the White House office over the input from their cabinet secretaries in charge of the major departments. This is particularly true in foreign policy, where the weight of responsibility falls most heavily on the President. The most visible manifestation is a tendency for the national security adviser and his or her staff to take on a greater foreign policy advising role, usually at the expense of the secretaries of State and Defense. This tension has been on display from the moment Obama took office and was confronted with the Pentagon request for a troop increase in Afghanistan. Obama eventually signed on to the request, but only reluctantly and after an internal debate that, as recounted by Bob Woodward, laid bare these tensions for all to see. Woodard’s account was largely confirmed by Gates in his memoirs, in which he describes a President who never really believed in his own Afghan war strategy.

From the perspective of defense secretaries, the White House-centered national security staff is viewed as composed of partisan loyalists lacking in foreign policy expertise and who are too willing to micromanage the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders. White House loyalists, in contrast, believe that the cabinet secretaries are insufficiently concerned with the political impact of their policy choices, and are too beholden to institutional interests at the president’s expense. By virtue of geographic and administrative proximity, it is the White House national security staff that usually wins this conflict. Cabinet members, in contrast, are typically forced out or resign amidst rumors of personality clashes with the President and/or members of his White House team.

In their memoirs, both Gates and Panetta paint a similar picture of an adversarial relationship with Obama’s national security team. Gates describes Thomas Donilon, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House coordinator for the wars, as engaging in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Similarly, in his memoirs Worthy Fights Panetta describes an insular White House staff that seemed to ignore cabinet members’ advice on issues ranging from intervention in Syria to troop levels in Afghanistan. In acknowledging that White House staffers Donilon, then-Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough wielded disproportionate influence over nation security policy, Panetta notes “There was nothing wrong with that, but that did have the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies…Those agency heads were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities.”

It may be that this dynamic is more pronounced in the Obama administration because Obama entered office with less experience, and perhaps less confidence, in the foreign policy realm than some previous presidents, such as George H. W. Bush, as well as little executive experience. But the reality is that most recent presidents enter office lacking extensive foreign policy backgrounds and while they initially may be willing to defer to those advisers, like Gates and Panetta, who have expertise and experience in these areas, over time presidents are more likely to seek to broaden their reach, through their hand-picked White House-centered staff, on major foreign policy processes. This is particularly true as their term in office winds down, and they become increasingly concerned about their policy legacy. Inevitably, cabinet advisers are going to bristle under what they see as declining influence and increased White House meddling in their institutional bailiwick. In this regard, Hagel’s departure seems to fit the prevailing pattern.

I have no doubt that Hagel clashed with the President, and his immediate White House staff, on a number of foreign policy issues. But those clashes, rather than reflecting personality dynamics, or differences on the issues, are more likely the result of diverging institutional perspectives that have colored the relationships between presidents and their defense secretaries long before Obama and Hagel took office, and which will govern future presidential-advisors relationships as well.   The key for any president is to recognize the source of these disagreements, and to understand that despite – because of – their different perspectives, they must make an active effort to include defense secretaries’ perspectives in their advising process.  This may require institutionalizing that input through a formal mechanism, such as a weekly meeting unfiltered by the immediate White House staff.  And it means acting to be sure that, when it comes to managing the foreign policy advising process, the White House loyalists don’t operate as both judge and jury.  This is particularly the case now, as the Obama administration faces numerous foreign policy crises that threaten not just his political standing, but the nation’s security as well.