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About That Gender Gap…..

I have a post up today at the Economist’s Democracy in American website discussing the conventional wisdom regarding the source of the sizable gender gap in the presidential race.  In brief, I take issue with the argument that women’s greater support for Obama can be traced to differences between the two candidates, and their parties, on the so-called women’s issues, including equal pay, domestic violence, contraception availability and abortion.  As you know, the partisan differences on these issues have been magnified in recent weeks by highly publicized comments from Romney’s fellow Republicans, most notably Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s statement regarding how women’s bodies respond to “legitimate rape” and conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s earlier characterization of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who testified on Capitol Hill in favor of insurance coverage for contraception, as a “slut”.

Given the negative public backlash engendered by these comments, it is not surprising that Democrats tried to capitalize by inviting Fluke to speak at the Democratic Convention, along with several other high-profile women, including Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the legislation Democrats pushed through Congress that required women to earn equal pay for equal work; Nancy Keenan, head of the abortion rights group NARAL; television star Eva Longoria; President Kennedy’s daughter and longtime Democratic icon Caroline Kennedy; and, not least, First Lady Michelle Obama, who delivered the capstone speech on the convention’s second night.

Collectively, this parade of speakers sought to bolster Obama’s standing among women by portraying Romney and his fellow Republicans’ as conducting a “war on women”. Romney, of course, had already played his own gender card by inviting a corresponding group of high-profile women to speak at the Republican National Convention, held a few days before the DNC.  The speakers’ list included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, and Mitt’s wife Ann Romney, who sought to portray her husband in softer, kinder terms, presumably to better appeal to women voters. .

Given what political scientists know regarding the origins of the gender gap, however, it is not immediately obvious why either party thought their particular roster of women speakers, and the issues they highlighted, would shift the gap in either direction. As I argue in the Economist post, there is evidence suggesting that the gender gap is driven more by men leaving the Democratic Party than by women abandoning the Republicans.  Moreover, the source of that gap is primarily women’s differing views regarding how parties treat the most vulnerable in society – the aged, poor, young and sick – as well as their greater opposition to the use of force.

Meanwhile, if I get a chance, I’ll post something on the debate in the next couple of hours,  as prelude to live blogging tonight.


No, Partisan Polarization Is NOT The New Normal

In still another manifestation of a familiar media theme, a front page article in yesterday’s Washington Post proclaims: “Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whomever wins the White House in November.”  Drawing on results from a survey co-sponsored by the Kaiser Foundation, Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write, “Partisan polarization once was considered an affliction only of elected officials and political elites. Now it has gone mainstream. Citizens’ ties to their political parties are stronger than ever, and passions on issues are intensely felt.”

By now you should know why the survey evidence Balz and Cohen cite does not, in fact, prove that “polarization is the new normal”.  I have made this argument before, but as long as the national news media continue to present a misleading read of survey data, I’m going to persist in trying to knock the story down.

As with similar media claims regarding a deeply polarized electorate Balz and Cohen’s case rests on two sets of survey data: longitudinal polling results that indicate more people are calling themselves strong partisans, and cross-sectional data showing differences in how self-proclaimed Democrats and Republicans respond to questions regarding a number of hot-button issues.  In both cases, however, the survey evidence is open to a different interpretation.  To see this, however, the reader would have to look at the actual survey data rather than simply relying on Balz and Cohen’s description of that data in the main article.  I suspect very few readers will take the time to do so.  So I’ll do it for them.

Let’s start with the longitudinal data. Balz and Cohen note that in a similar Kaiser study from 1998, “41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they considered themselves “strong” partisans. In the new Post-Kaiser survey, those numbers have shot up to 65 and 62 percent, respectively.”  That’s true, but what they don’t say is that the overall number of self-professed Democrats, Republicans and Independents has remained remarkably stable in that period.

Democrat   Republican   Independent   Other/None   No opinion

8/5/12       34          25            34          4              3

6/3/07       36          27            29          4              3

8/18/98      30          27            30         12              1

In short, we don’t see Independents flocking to either party, which one might expect to be the case if the electorate was becoming more partisan. In fact, there may have been a slight increase in the number of independents during the last 14 years.  How, then, do we reconcile the growth in “strong” partisans with the overall stability in partisan identification?  The answer is one I’ve discussed before: what Balz and Cohen are documenting is a process of party sorting, not partisan polarization.  As research by Mo Fiorina, Sam Abrams and Jeremy Pope indicates, when ideology increasingly matches up with party labels – Republicans more uniformly conservative, and Democrats more liberal – it becomes easier for people to identify more strongly with a party label even if their own political views have not become more partisan.  That’s what Balz and Cohen are picking up in the survey data: voters are not more polarized – party labels are.

But what of the individual survey questions in the latest study that purport to show huge differences in how Republicans and Democrats respond to questions that address fundamental political issues, such as the role of government in our lives?  My answer is largely the same: rather than indicating growing partisan polarization, the results are instead measuring the process of party sorting.  For instance, as Balz and Cohen note, “One set of answers is particularly revealing: The number of Republicans who feel strongly that the government controls too much of daily life jumped 24 percentage points since the 1998 survey, to 63 percent. The number of Democrats strongly disagreeing with the assertion doubled.”

But here are the actual trends over time:

a. Government controls too much of our daily lives

——— Agree ———   ——- Disagree ——–   Neither     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly    (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12    60       41         19      39       21         18          1        1

Dem     38       21         17      58       27         31          1        2

Ind     65       45         21      34       21         12          1        *

Rep     81       63         18      18       11          8          *        *

8/18/98   60       35         26      39       28         10          1        *

In 14 years, the proportion of registered voters who think government controls too much of our daily lives has not changed! The same stability holds for opinions regarding whether government or individuals should be primarily responsible for improving peoples’ standard of living:

Gov’t in Washington          Not gov’t

should do everything     responsibility, each

possible to improve     person  should take    Neither     No

the standard of living    care of themselves     (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12           52                      44               NA        4

Dem            76                      20               NA        4

Ind            47                      48               NA        4

Rep            26                      71               NA        3

9/1/02           56                      39                2        3

8/30/99          57                      38                4        1

8/18/98          51                      46                –        3

Rather than growing polarization, we see instead almost no change in public attitudes on these fundamental questions. Fine, you respond, but what about the partisan breakdown that Balz and Cohen cite? Surely that proves the public is deeply split along partisan lines.

Not necessarily.  Remember, I am not arguing that the views of Republicans and Democrats are identical – only that they are not deeply divided in a way that makes compromise impossible, as Balz and Cohen would have us believe.  Part of the problem in interpreting these results is that the survey questions are often worded in ways that make it difficult for respondents to provide nuanced answers.  Instead, they are typically told they must choose between one of two extreme positions.  So, for example, the results cited by Balz and Cohen regarding whether government controls too much of our lives are based on this survey question: “Do you personally agree or disagree with the following statement? Government controls too much of our daily lives.”  What answer do I give if I agree sometimes, and disagree other times, depending on the issue?  Yes, it’s possible for respondents to answer “neither”, but the agree/disagree format certainly doesn’t encourage a more nuanced response.

And so it goes with most of the questions on which Balz and Cohen rely to support their claim of a divided public. Consider question 17: “Would you say you favor a smaller federal government with fewer services, or larger federal government with many services?”  Again, the question wording practically begs for a split along partisan lines, even if Democrats and Republicans aren’t that far apart on their views regarding the proper role of government.  If forced to choose between the two answers, we shouldn’t be surprised that Republicans lean one way, and Democrats the other.  But this is not necessarily evidence of a deep divide along partisan lines.

At the same time, Balz and Cohen play down survey results that indicate Americans are becoming increasingly tolerant of opposing views, particularly on moral issues, than they were 14 years ago.  Consider the results to three questions that directly address tolerance on social values:

b. We should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong:

——— Agree ———   ——- Disagree ——–   Neither     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly    (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12    75       44         31      23       11         12          1        1

Dem     80       54         27      18        8         10          1        1

Ind     75       46         29      23       12         11          *        2

Rep     68       29         38      30       13         17          1        1

9/17/00   71       37         35      26       14         12         NA        2

8/18/98   70       30         40      27       15         12          1        1


e. Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong:

——— Agree ———   ——- Disagree ——–   Neither     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly    (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12    61       38         23      36       17         19          1        2

Dem     53       29         24      44       18         26          *        3

Ind     57       34         23      40       20         20          1        2

Rep     77       55         22      20       12          9          *        2

9/17/00   70       43         28      28       16         12         NA        2

8/18/98   69       42         27      29       18         11          1        1


Finally: 4. Would you rather see religious and spiritual values have (more) influence in politics and public life than they do now, (less) influence, or about the same influence as they do now?

More influence   Less influence   About the same   No opinion

8/5/12         30               36               32             2

Dem          21               42               35             1

Ind          26               39               33             2

Rep          49               21               28             2

9/1/02*        44               21               33             2

8/18/98*       38               22               38             2

*2002 and 1998: Would you rather see religious and spiritual values have (greater /less) influence…

On all three questions, while there are partisan differences, in the aggregate the movement is toward more toleration of opposing views, and less willingness to see religion and spiritual issues injected into politics.  This is is not evidence of an electorate that is growing more culturally divided.

But what about those hot-button cultural wedge issues, such as abortion, that are so often cited as dividing Republicans and Democrats?  Balz and Cohen assert: “Divisions over religious and social issues are equally stark.”  Perhaps they are, but an equally important question is whether that division really matters to the outcome of the 2012 election. That is, how deeply rooted is the division on moral values?  In this regard, perhaps the most revealing data in the entire survey comes in response to question 3, which asks: “Other than the economy and jobs what will be the most important issue in your choice for president?”  In responding to this open-ended question, only 3% cite “morals/family values” and only 2% cite “social issues”.  Only 1% mention “abortion”, “gun control” or “gay marriage.”  Rather than so-called “values”, the most cited non-economic issue is “health care/Obamacare”, at 14%.  Fully 17% cite no non-economic issue at all.  When given the choice to identify which issues really matter, very few Americans care about the moral values that so many pundits cite as dividing Republicans and Democrats.

It is an article of faith among pundits and journalists that Americans are deeply divided along party lines.  To be sure, when it comes to politics, Republicans and Democrats are not “tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum”.  Instead they come down differently on host of issues.  But neither are they so deeply divided as to make compromise on these issues impossible.  And in this election cycle, the issues that matter are almost exclusively economic in nature; voters simply are not interested in debating so-called “moral values”.  And on these important matters, such as the role of government in the economy, surveys that purport to show deepening partisan polarization are instead, in my view, showing party sorting against the backdrop of polarized choices. In short, contrary to what Balz and Cohen write, there is little evidence that Americans have become more deeply polarized along partisan lines during the last 14 years.

Which Party is More Extreme? The Mote in Markos’ Eye

The results of a recently released survey commissioned by The Hill (a journal focusing on Congress) of likely voters in 10 “battleground” states are garnering not a little attention among the chattering class. (The poll surveyed voters in congressional districts in Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington state, West Virginia and Wisconsin). The survey, conducted by the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland between Oct. 2 and Oct. 7, found that 44% of respondents say the Democratic Party is more dominated by its extreme elements.  Thirty-seven percent say it’s the Republican Party that is more dominated by extremists. The margin of error for the overall sample is 1.5 percent.  When the survey is broken down by party, the results grow more interesting still: 22% of Democrats surveyed say “their party was more dominated than the GOP by extreme views. The equivalent figure among Republicans is 11 percent.”  (The margin of error by party is 4.5%)

Perhaps the most crucial finding concerns independents: among this group, 43% say the Democrat Party is “more dominated by its extreme elements, compared to 37 percent who thought the GOP had fallen under the sway of extreme views.”  (Again, the margin of error among the subsample of independents is 4.5%)

I do not have access to the actual poll so, as always, take the results with the requisite dose of salt.  That being said, long-time readers of this blog will likely not be surprised that both parties are viewed by roughly equivalent number of likely independent voters (taking into account the margin of error, the Democrat Party is viewed as more extreme by a very small margin) as being hijacked by extremists, but the results do run against the prevailing media narrative that suggests it is the Republican Party that has been hijacked by extremists in the form of the Tea Party.  Instead, the survey suggests that many independents view both parties as almost equally susceptible to their more extreme elements.

The results are a reminder why Democrats are struggling during the current electoral cycle.  The most prominent public faces of the Democratic Party during the national  debates over the stimulus bill and health care are Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – both of whom are viewed (especially Pelosi) as particularly liberal Democrats.  In upstate New York (I get to see their television ads) Republican candidates for the House are running ads that link the Democrats to Pelosi.  At the same time, any Democrat who voted for health care reform and the stimulus bill is being tarred and feathered as a liberal extremist.  In the context of a 9.7% unemployment rate that shows no sign of abating, a record budget deficit, uncertainty over health care, and a general feeling that the bank bailout bill benefited Wall St. more than Main St., Democrats in the House and Senate who supported the Democratic leadership on these votes are finding themselves vulnerable in the current electoral cycle.

More interesting to me, however, is how leading progressives have reacted to this poll.  Consider the comments of Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the liberal website the Daily Kos.

“Democrats haven’t nominated anyone like Sharron Angle or Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell or Rob Johnson or Joe Miller for Senate seats, much less the myriad of wackos in House races across the country,” Markos said. “We don’t have media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh calling the shots for our party.

“But they have built their alternate world courtesy of Fox News, thus making them impervious to reality. Is that a problem? Sure. Even more so when Democrats think they can reason with this crowd,” said Moulitsas.

The irony of Markos comments, I hope, is not lost on you – but it clearly is on him!  He is completely oblivious to the fact that for many “extremists” on the Right, he is the Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh of the Left – the “extremist” calling the shots for “our party”.  Conservatives are convinced that it is Moulitsas and his supporters, through his website the Daily Kos and sympathetic cable stations like MSNBC, who in fact have created the “alternate reality.”  From the conservative perspective, it is Markos and those who share his views who are out of step with the mainstream.

I make no judgment regarding the validity of these competing claims.  Instead, my point is that Markos does the Democrats – including President Obama – no favor by dismissing the views of those who worry that the Democrat Party has been captured by extremists.  Rather than suggesting that respondents in these battleground states have been brainwashed by Fox News, Kos and Democrats would do far better to address their concerns. They could begin by acknowledging that President Obama, in confronting a Congress more polarized than any previous Congress since the Reconstruction Era, and having inherited an economic recession more severe than any since Reagan’s first two years, cannot afford to mortgage his presidency to the wing of the party that is viewed as extremist by almost half of all voters in key states. Democrats are going to lose seats come November – if Markos’ view that independents have been brainwashed by extremists prevails, that number is likely to be go up.

Note: We are entering the stretch run to the November midterm election, one that is shaping up to be among the most significant in two decades.  I’ll be blogging more frequently (on a daily basis, I hope) between now and Election Day, and I hope to hear from many of you in the comments section.  This is what democracy is all about!  (Plus you get cool t-shirts!)

Obama Take Note! The Paradox of Politicization, Or Why Presidents Do Not Really Control the Executive Branch

Today’s Washington Post contains a fascinating – and sobering look at the sprawling national intelligence community that has mushroomed in the wake of 9-11.  For long time readers of this blog, the article will sound familiar themes, since it largely supports my analysis of the failures of the the post 9-11 reforms – including the creation of a new super-coordinating office of national intelligence headed by a director of national intelligence (DNI) – to solve the  problems that allowed the 9-11 attacks to occur. Indeed, these reforms may have exacerbated the problem, and in perfectly foreseeable ways.

Recall that analysts blamed 9-11 on the failure of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information that would have enabled them to “connect the dots” to reveal the plan to hijack planes and fly them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and, in all likelihood, the Capitol. The DNI was established to prevent a recurrence of that bureaucratic failure. The idea was to create one central coordinating office whose job would be to overcome the jurisdictional boundaries and turf wars that prevented law enforcement and intelligence agencies from sharing information. In fact, the DNI has failed to accomplish this mission; rather than break down information barriers, it has established still another bureaucratic layer through which information must flow before it is analyzed and acted upon.  The result, as I wrote in my analysis of the failed Christmas Day crotch-bombing, has been to slow intelligence analysis and delay the ability of  agencies to react to that intelligence.   Rather than connecting dots, the organizational reforms have simply created more dots that need connecting.

As evidence, here’s what the WaPo story says about the crotch-bombing incident which I discussed in some detail in previous posts:

“Last fall, after eight years of growth and hirings, the enterprise was at full throttle when word emerged that something was seriously amiss inside Yemen. In response, President Obama signed an order sending dozens of secret commandos to that country to target and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda affiliate. In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.

That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis [the NTCT reports directly to the DNI], it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.

As military operations in Yemen intensified and the chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, the intelligence agencies ramped up their effort. The flood of information into the NCTC became a torrent.

Somewhere in that deluge was even more vital data. Partial names of someone in Yemen. A reference to a Nigerian radical who had gone to Yemen. A report of a father in Nigeria worried about a son who had become interested in radical teachings and had disappeared inside Yemen.

These were all clues to what would happen when a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Yemen and eventually boarded a plane in Amsterdam bound for Detroit. But nobody put them together because, as officials would testify later, the system had gotten so big that the lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred. “There are so many people involved here,” NCTC Director Leiter told Congress.

“Everyone had the dots to connect,” DNI Blair explained to the lawmakers. “But I hadn’t made it clear exactly who had primary responsibility.”

And so Abdulmutallab was able to step aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. As it descended toward Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear. It wasn’t the very expensive, very large 9/11 enterprise that prevented disaster. It was a passenger who saw what he was doing and tackled him. “We didn’t follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan explained afterward. “Because no one intelligence entity, or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation.”

Blair acknowledged the problem. His solution: Create yet another team to run down every important lead. But he also told Congress he needed more money and more analysts to prevent another mistake.

More is often the solution proposed by the leaders of the 9/11 enterprise.”

My point here is not to pat myself on the back because WaPo came to the same conclusion as I did.  Instead, it is to remind you that this is not an isolated incident, but in fact is a reflection of a more deep-seated problem with efforts to reform the intelligence bureaucracy in the wake of 9-11. The failure to anticipate the Christmas Day crotch-bombing, or the Fort Hood shooting, points to a larger problem, one that many of my political science colleagues who write about the presidency and the bureaucracy have failed to grasp.  Without going too deeply into the details of what might strike some as an arcane academic dispute, there are some presidency scholars who believe the President is well situated to manage the federal bureaucracy.  Through his control of budgeting, personnel appointments, and legislative and regulatory policy, they argue, the President possesses levers by which to make the bureaucracy respond to his policy preferences.  Over time, they claim, presidents have used these tools to create a more presidency-friendly executive branch.  A key reason they are able to do so, these scholars argue, is because presidents are unitary actors, whereas Congress suffers from significant collective action problems. The result is that in the struggle to control the executive branch, presidents have a built-in institutional advantage.

Without putting too fine a point on it, this analysis is, in my view, hopelessly naïve. The idea that the President is a “unitary actor” betrays a gross ignorance of the environment in which presidents operate, and of the process by which presidents make decisions.  In most cases involving the bureaucracy, their “unilateral” choices are in fact based on options presented to them by other actors and institutions who rarely if ever share the president’s political or institutional perspective. The idea that presidents’ act “unilaterally” is true in only one respect: they are held responsible for the actions of the executive branch bureaucracy.  But to assume they control that bureaucracy is – as Obama is discovering – pure fantasy.  (Do you think Obama controlled the MMS – the agency that approved BP’s permit request to drill in the Gulf?)

The “levers” of control cited by these political scientists who believe presidents can manage the executive branch are of far less use to presidents than they appear to be on paper, in part because presidents don’t know what to do with them and in part because they are shared with other actors.  The result is that the notion that the executive branch is a unified entity that responds to the commands of one man – the President – at the top is a gross and misleading simplification.  I am currently working on a book project with Andy Rudalevige that develops these points in more detail and I’ll try to draw on that research in future posts to develop this argument.

But consider the post-9-11 reforms.  At first glance, this seems striking evidence that presidents can control the bureaucracy.  In this case, President Bush established a coordinating czar, the DNI, superimposed on the existing bureaucracy, who reports directly to the President. The President can appoint the DNI (with Senate approval), and – as Obama recently did – fire him.  The reality, however, as Obama discovered and as the WaPo article documents, is that the DNI lacks the control over agency budgets and personnel necessary to fulfill this coordinating mission.  Why does the DNI lack this coordinating authority?  Largely because the agencies that were supposed to be coordinated used their political influence to make sure Congress prevented any real loss of autonomy when the DNI was established.  On paper, then, it appears the President, through the creation of the DNI, has “presidentialized” the intelligence gathering process – the DNI’s office has exploded in size (it now numbers some 1,500) and has a huge budget.  In fact, this growth masks a relative lack of authority – the intelligence bureaucracy is arguably less responsive to presidential control than it was before the reforms.  Rather than “presidentialized”, the intelligence bureaucracy has effectively resisted reform – resistance largely due to Congressional support.

The failure to establish true coordinating authority centered in a DNI reporting directly to the President reveals a more fundamental problem – one that is at the heart of my research.  I call it the paradox of politicization. Simply put, the more presidents try to politicize the administrative levers by which to move the executive branch bureaucracy – personnel appointments, budgeting, and legislative and regulatory clearance – the more they erode the administrative capacity of the very agencies they seek to control. In the long run – as Obama discovered with the crotch-bombing, or in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, when agencies fail to fulfill their mission, it is the president who suffers.  In short, efforts to strengthen their control over the bureaucracy have weakened presidential authority – precisely the opposite result presidents hoped to achieve.

As part of my research, I recently talked to a former employee of the Bureau of the Budget who pointed out that at one time the BoB (now OMB) had a division of administrative management that was staffed with careerists who possessed a wealth of knowledge and expertise regarding executive branch functions and history.  (For those who are interested, Andy and I have written (gated) about the creation of the BoB’s management division during FDR’s presidency.)  During the last several decades, however, as presidents have layered the upper level of the OMB with political appointees, the administrative management functions have atrophied, in part because the careerists with the relevant expertise simply have less contact with the OMB director, to say nothing of the President.  The former BoB official noted that during discussion to create the Department of Homeland Security, only one OMB official was involved, and he was largely a bystander in a process controlled by the White House’s political appointees. Today, he told me, there is no one in government with the expertise or knowledge to advise presidents about how to organize the executive branch.  That institutional memory is simply gone, a victim of the politicization that so many political scientists mistakenly view as evidence of enhanced presidential control.

The study of bureaucracy is not a sexy topic. And the loss of administrative competence that I allude to here may strike some as a rather uninteresting topic, better suited for an academic journal than a popular blog. But it has real consequences for the effectiveness of government programs – and for the political fortunes of presidents who must deal with the misguided perceptions, created in part by political scientists, that presidents actually control the executive branch.  The sooner we dismiss this misconception, the more quickly we can address the problems cited in today’s WaPo article.

In Defense of the Senate Filibuster, Take Two

Several posts ago I defended the existence of the Senate filibuster, which has come under fire from liberals because of its impact on the health care debate.  My argument rested on three points:

1. That the increased use of the filibuster during the last half-century reflects not just the growth in partisan polarization in Congress, but also the lowered cost of threatening to filibuster.  Senators are much more willing to simply invoke cloture to forestall a threatened filibuster, which means filibustering a bill is a less time consuming process than it once was. This concern with efficiency is a function of the increased desire by Senators to leave Washington, DC in order to do constituency work in their home state.  So, we shouldn’t conclude that because filibusters and cloture are used more frequently today that the Senate is more susceptible to gridlock than it was 50 years ago.  In fact, according to some political scientists, such as David Mayhew, legislative productivity has not decreased in this time.  The Senate is no more prone to gridlock today than before.

2. That – as currently constituted – the Senate could today easily modify or eliminate the filibuster if a majority of 51 Senators wanted to.  In other words, it is within Democrats’ power right now to end the filibuster, and there is nothing Republicans could do to stop them.

3. That Democrat senators do not eliminate the filibuster because it is one mechanism that protects regional and state interests.  In short, it is an instrument of federalism, and an important safeguard for protecting one’s constituents, whether one is Republican or Democrat.

Judging by your email responses, many (most?) of you remain unconvinced. Several of you emailed articles by Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman and Tom Geoghegan, all of whom criticize the filibuster as a symbol of a broken Senate. And while it is true that their objections to the filibuster are largely rooted in the health care debate (and that none of them seemed to be objecting that much when Democrats were using the filibuster to block George W. Bush’s judicial nominees!), that doesn’t mean their arguments are without merit.  As Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

At the risk of revealing my tiny cognitive capacity, however, let me revisit the argument on behalf of the filibuster by extending my earlier comments. Critics argue that the filibuster is antimajoritarian; that is, it allows a minority of Senators to block proposals supported by large majorities.   So, in the case of health care reform, we have a Democrat President who ran successfully on a promise to reform health care, and who was voted into office along with Democrat majorities in both the Senate and House, in part to fulfill this promise.  A majority of the public, when polled, supported health care reform.  And yet the ability of this majority party to fulfill a basic campaign promise is blocked by a minority of Republicans.  This cannot be what the Framers intended when they established a representative democracy.  As Bob Johnson quite cogently argues in an email to me, the reason we replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution originally was to prevent individual states from blocking efforts to address national problems.

At first glance this looks like a persuasive argument.  But let’s think about it in the context of health care and the current Congress.  The mistake that opponents of the filibuster often make is to equate the sentiments of a majority of Senators with the views of a majority of the public.  But we can see why they are not necessarily equivalent.  Recall that the current Congress is the most polarized since the Civil War; as the figure below shows, there’s not much of a moderate middle, and no overlap between the two parties, ideologically speaking. (Blue lines signify Democrats, solid red are the Republicans.  The X [bottom] axis measures ideology based on voting, and ranges from extreme liberal on the Left to extreme conservatie on the Right.   The  Y [left-hand] axis is the number of members of Congress falling within each space on the ideological continuum.)

polarization 110 CongressHow did Congress get so polarized?  One reason is that increasingly candidates must win a party primary in order to run in the general election. (Prior to the 1960’s party leaders often determined who would run on the party ticket.) Primaries, however, tend to attract a smaller number of voters who are not representative of the electorate at large; instead, they are often single-issue voters drawn from a party’s more extreme wings.  For example, remember the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut in which antiwar activist Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman, largely on the strength of Lamont’s antiwar views?  As this chart shows, Lamont won with the support of less than 6% of the voting age population in Connecticut.

connecticut 2006Had Lieberman dropped out rather than run as an independent, Lamont likely would have beaten the Republican candidate – one of a wave of Democrats elected into office in 2006 and 2008.  Instead Lieberman ran in the general election and soundly beat Lamont, based in large part on support from more moderate voters (and not a few Republicans). Lamont’s case is unusual only in that Lieberman did not give up after losing the primary. Changes in how candidates are nominated increasingly mean that voters are forced to choose between two relatively extreme candidates in the general election, neither of whom – as we saw with Lamont – necessarily represents the policy views of the majority of constituents.

The result is a Congress in which neither party is necessarily very representative of the more moderate electorate.   To see this graphically, imagine a bell curve distribution of voters based on ideology, with the most moderate middle in the center under the highest portion of the curve, signifying the greatest number of people.  Now superimpose that on the Congressional polarization chart and you’ll get a sense of what I am arguing – Congress is least representative in the very middle.

Or, consider polling regarding health care.  Americans support the idea of health care reform in the abstract.  But, as happened in 1993, when asked to sign on to particular legislation, with all the tradeoffs reform inevitably entails, support for healthcare drops.  We see this in the following table:

Indeed, the latest Pew survey suggests that health care reform is not even in the top five of issues of concern to Americans.   And yet the health care legislation remains the focus of debate for members of Congress  and policy activists on both sides, with Obama vowing to get some type of health care legislation passed.

You see my point.  A majority of the Senate may favor the current health care bill – maybe even a near supermajority of 59 members.  But that is not always the equivalent of the majority of the electorate because the moderate middle of voters is not always proportionally represented in the Senate.

So, why is this a defense of the filibuster?  Recall that in 2005, Senate Democrats, although in the minority, used the filibuster to prevent George W. Bush’s judicial nominees from coming to a vote.  Harry Reid defended the practice, arguing that Bush’s nominees were not in the political mainstream.  Today, Republicans threaten to filibuster the Democratic health legislation, arguing that it goes too far Left and does not have the support of a majority of the public.  Both sides may be right. That is, the majority party in the Senate in both instances may in fact have been pushing policy views, or nominees with judicial views, that were out of step with mainstream public opinion.

I do not disagree that the filibuster can be used by a minority of Senators to thwart the will of the majority of the Senate – a majority that represents the majority of voters.  We saw that during the civil rights debates when a minority bloc of southern Senators prevented passage of civil rights legislation that most Americans supported.  But what Geoghegan, Klein and Krugman ignore in their zeal to see health care legislation pass  is that the filibuster can also be used to protect the moderate majority against more extremist policies too.  As the Senate becomes increasingly polarized – it is now the most polarized since the Civil War – this latter function of the filibuster is, I argue, increasingly important.

In short, rather than serving only a strictly antimajoritarian purpose, the filibuster serves an additional crucial purpose in the modern Senate:  it protects the majority interest by preventing either wing of the two parties from imposing its own more extremist views. Equally important, the increased use of the filibuster, and cloture votes, does not seem to have slowed legislative productivity, at least according to some political scientists.  Important laws are still passed.  We tend to lose sight of this in the current focus on the inability to pass health care legislation.  Health care legislation may be stuck not because of minority opposition so much as due to flagging popular support.

For some of you, of course, catering to the views of the moderate middle is no virtue.  I’m not necessarily defending a moderate perspective.  I am arguing, however, that the usual case against the filibuster – that it is an antimajoritarian tool that prevents the Senate from fulfilling the will of the people – is not always true.  Sometimes it protects the will of the people.

That’s the defense of the filibuster.  Let the critics respond!

I’ll be on later tonight, live blogging the State of the Union address.   Feel free to join in with commentary (“You Lie!”)