How One President Spent His Year, Summarized In One Table: Ronald Reagan, 1984

As I wade into drafting the final version of my manuscript documenting the growth of the White House staff, I’ve been working my way through years of archival material I’ve accumulated from visits to 11 presidential libraries (not to mention material from scores of interviews with former White House aides). I thought it might be interesting to periodically present some of the historical documents as I come across them – I’ll try to do this every Saturday. This first installment is from the start of Ronald Reagan’s second term as president.

In January 1985, Don Regan was preparing to transition to his new job as Reagan’s chief of staff, replacing James Baker who was slated to become the Secretary of the Treasury in Regan’s stead. (Baker and Regan, both seeking new challenges, had decided to switch jobs. It does not appear that Reagan gave much thought to the switch which, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably not a good idea. Regan was ill-suited to managing the White House and was largely responsible for allowing the Iran-contra affair to take place on his watch.)

As part of the transition, Regan commissioned a number of studies regarding the various functions of the White House offices, including one from the Scheduling Office, which operated under the supervision of Michael Deaver. Deaver was part of a triumvirate of senior aides, along with Baker and Ed Meese, who served as Reagan’s primary first term advisers at the top of the White House organization. When Regan became chief of staff at the start of the second term, he essentially took on all of their jobs.

Deaver’s primary responsibility was orchestrating the public face of the Reagan presidency, which included overseeing communications, scheduling and travel. Among the many documents Deaver passed along to Regan was this one, which offered a monthly breakdown of Reagan’s schedule, organized by subject matter, for 1984. Note that the summary does not include time spent in his daily staff meetings with his senior aides.  Nor does Deaver (or the aide who created it) specify how the table was constructed.

Reagan's time
Not surprisingly, considering this was a period of escalating tension with the Soviet Union, Reagan spends about 25% of his time dealing with his NSC advisers. Much of that time occurs early in the year, as Reagan struggles to extricate the U.S. from its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon after the tragic terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks there that killed 241 American servicemen.

By the fall, however, Reagan is in full-bore campaign mode, with over 50% of his scheduled time dealing with politics in September, and more than 80% in October. (The Republican Convention that renominated Reagan took place in late August that year.) All told the time Reagan spends in political meetings for the full year equals his time spent on national security issues and together they account for about half his scheduled time. Everything else pales in significance; the third biggest chunk of time is with his cabinet (8%) and the press (8%).

This is just one year from the Reagan presidency, and it is an election year to boot, so I wouldn’t want to generalize too much from Deaver’s chart to other presidencies. But my sense is that the preoccupation with national security issues is not unusual for the modern presidency, in large part because there is no other office that can take the lead in this area. Certainly Congress has proved itself ill-suited to exercise a leadership role in the national security realm. As it turned out, however, Reagan was about to embark on perhaps his most significant foreign policy initiative – the ill-fated effort to trade arms for hostages that ultimately cost Regan his job, and almost cost Reagan his presidency.

Sorted, Not Polarized: Why The Distinction Matters

When it comes to writing about polarization in American, who can blame journalists for expressing confusion? The Washington Post’s Dan Balz is the latest reporter to grapple with conflicting evidence and, perhaps more importantly, conflicting interpretation of the evidence by political scientists. In this recent article Balz discusses the results of a new study conducted by the Program for Consultation at the University of Maryland that shows there is little difference in the policy views of citizens in “red” and “blue” congressional districts.  (Their findings mirror those of Fiorina, Abrams and Pope in their Culture Wars?) In the same article, however, Balz also quotes political scientist Alan Abramowitz’s take on other data that Abramowitz suggests shows Americans are in fact deeply polarized.

But it is not just the conflicting interpretation of data that journalists must deal with – it is also the loose use of the term polarization itself that contributes to the problem. In common usage, polarization refers to the divergence of political attitudes toward ideological extremes, or a sharp division of a population or group into opposing factions. Understandably, when stories proclaim that Americans’ political views are increasingly polarized, most readers believe this means Americans must be dividing into two camps based on increasingly divergent political views. So, we must be seeing an increase in conservatives and in liberals, and a decrease in those holding more centrist views. (And, in fact, this seems to be what Professor Abramowitz, among others, believes is happening.)

However, as I have discussed in several posts, most of the evidence used to support this claim does not show a process of polarization, as commonly understood. Instead, it shows a process of party sorting. To understand the difference, consider these two graphs taken from a recent paper by Sam Abrams and Mo Fiorina that discusses polarization and sorting. This first graph illustrates what most people think of when they hear the term political polarization. It shows the elimination from Time 1 to Time 2 in the number of moderates, as well as non-liberals in the Democratic Party and non-conservatives in the Republican Party. The end result is an increase in the number of liberals and conservatives, and the disappearance of moderates, consistent with what many people understand polarization to mean.

Fiorina polarizationNow, consider graph 2. Here the total number of moderates does not change from Time 1 to Time 2, but both parties purge themselves (through conversion and migration) of most of those who are out of step with the party’s dominant ideology (although some moderate leaners remain in each party). However, there is no increase in the total number of liberals or conservatives – indeed, in the aggregate, the distribution of political ideology hasn’t changed at all. All that has occurred is a better sorting of party affiliation with ideology, so that the Democratic Party has become more uniformly liberal and the Republican more uniformly conservative.

Fiorina party sorting

Which is more consistent with what has actually happened in the United States? You decide. Here is a chart, again from Abrams and Fiorina, showing the change in the distribution of partisan affiliation, based on American National Election Studies surveys,  since 1952. As you can see, if there is any long-term movement, it is in the slight increase in the number of self-described independents and those leaning independent.

PartisanstableHow about changes in ideology over time? Again, as the following chart shows, we see very little movement in those calling themselves liberals, moderates and conservatives.

ideologystableBoth sets of data, then, are consistent with what Fiorina (and others) have described as party sorting, rather than political polarization. Nonetheless, some colleagues in the profession suggest that party sorting is itself simply another version of polarization. The argument is that even if the parties, or the number of liberals and conservatives, have not grown larger at the expense of the moderate middle, the center of ideological gravity in each party has certainly shifted toward the extremes. So we have seen a process of partisan polarization, albeit not the kind that comports with what many laypeople understand polarization to mean.

I am uncomfortable with this broader use of the term polarization for several reasons. First, most laypeople, including journalists, don’t always appreciate the differences in the two processes – when they see the phrase polarization, they assume it means a general movement within the public toward the ideological extremes at the expense of the center. (It doesn’t help that stories often drop the adjective partisan when describing polarization.) It bears repeating that there has been no real growth in the number of Democrats or Republicans, which some might argue should be happening based on the term partisan polarization. Second, encompassing different processes under the single term robs polarization of some of its analytical bite. If the processes are different, we ought to acknowledge that by using different terminology. It is confusing enough for journalists and laypeople to hear social scientists give different interpretations based on the same set of data. We shouldn’t further muddy the waters by using the same term to describe very different processes. (Otherwise we should expect more stories with the headlines similar to “We’re Not That Polarized. Oh Yes, We Are”.) If journalists are going to rely on social scientists for guidance on these issues, we need to strive for clarity and precision in terminology. Finally, the implications of a growth in party sorting are much different than those emanating from increased political polarization. To use one example, if the public is more polarized, then it becomes harder to blame Congress for partisan gridlock, since they are simply mirroring broader divisions within their constituencies. But if the views of red state and blue state denizens are not so divergent on major issues, as the survey Balz cites suggests, then we must look elsewhere to place the blame.

In my view, polarization and sorting are two different processes, and we ought to recognize this. We can start by retitling Balz’s story: “We’re Not That Polarized. But We Are Better Sorted. And the Distinction Matters.”

Hillary Clinton: Is She Rich Enough To Be President?

Democratic Party activists and leading pundits have of late begun speculating whether Hillary Clinton’s wealth might prove to be an obstacle to her presidential aspirations. But history suggests their concerns are misplaced. The problem is not that Hillary’s too rich. It’s that she’s not rich enough – at least not rich enough to achieve presidential greatness!

As Clinton understands, a major drawback to being the front-runner for your party’s presidential nomination, with no clear rivals in sight, is that the media has no one else to talk about. Journalists, of course, view their mission as speaking truth to power and, not incidentally, they also have a strong preference for a competitive presidential nominating race. For this reason, they have spent considerable time of late, aided by issue activists and other party players, probing for weaknesses in Clinton’s candidacy. This is part of the candidate vetting process that Marty Cohen et al describe in their The Party Decides.  Part of that vetting involves testing possible negative campaign frames to see which ones might have legs on the campaign trail. So far the vetters have discussed Benghazi against the backdrop of Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, her evolving views on gay marriage and, most recently, her personal wealth. The wealth issue was triggered by Clinton’s statement, at the start of her recent book tour, that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House. Critics immediately pounced, noting that given her $200,000 speaking fees and current net worth hovering at an estimated $15 million,  the comments made her seem out of touch with ordinary Americans. More enticing still, pundits speculated that her wealth made her vulnerable to a challenge from a populist candidate (Elizabeth Warren, anyone?) who was not perceived to be so closely tied to Wall St. and the “1 percent”. (See also here and here.)

What are we to make of this effort to characterize Hillary as the poor-woman’s Mitt Romney – a plutocrat out of touch with the average American? History suggests Hillary’s critics are drawing the wrong lesson. Let’s face it – to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway (perhaps apocryphally) paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Presidents are different from you and me. They have more money.” Lots more, in fact. You don’t find very many presidents who were not men of considerable means when they took office.

Interestingly, the wealthier the President, the more likely he (someday she) will be considered one of the greater presidents, based on evaluations by historians and political scientists. (In previous posts I’ve discussed some of the problems with presidential rankings, so I won’t belabor the point here.) Consider the presidents typically ranked as the nation’s greatest: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. With the exception of Lincoln (and who knows where he would be ranked had he served out his second term) all took office possessing great personal wealth – in fact, they are among the wealthiest of all the presidents. Washington ranks second in net worth, just behind JFK. Jefferson is third (although he was mired in debt in his post-presidential years), and TR fourth. Even FDR, the poorest among them at a wealth ranking of only nine (again, excluding Lincoln) based on an estimated net worth in current dollars of $60 million, has 4 times Clinton’s fortune.  All told, at least 17 presidents outrank Hillary in personal wealth and these include some of the highest ranked presidents, including Jackson (ranked 8), Kennedy (11), Adams (12), Madison (13), LBJ (14) and Monroe (15). Indeed, if you control for the usual suspects (death in office, scandal, whether the nation is at war, and if the president won reelection), wealth is a statistically significant predictor of a president’s historical ranking (although I wouldn’t put too much stock in the coefficient)!

Now, to anticipate the expressions of outrage that are sure to flow into my comments section, I am in fact deeply skeptical that there’s any direct link between wealth and presidential greatness, regression results notwithstanding (although I don’t rule out the possibility!) My point is simply that there’s nothing in the historical record that says being wealthy should disqualify you from holding the nation’s highest office.

Indeed, I think that rather than shy away from publicizing her wealth, Hillary should embrace it. Think of the possible slogans!

Hillary Clinton. She’s not a….er…..witch. She’s just rich.

But is she rich enough to be in the “10 percent” of great presidents?

[Update: 12:08.  And now the New York Times piles on by analyzing Chelsea's speaking fees!]

Meanwhile, Mad magazine has some fun at Hillary’s expense (hat tip to Shelly Sloan):

broke girl


Cleveland Rocks! But Probably Not Enough To Influence The 2016 Presidential Race

The Republican Party announced today that the party’s 2016 nominating convention will be held in Cleveland. The choice seems driven by the hope that it may influence the presidential vote in Ohio, which is likely to once again be a key swing state in the next presidential election. But if this is the hope, Republicans are likely to be disappointed. There is no evidence of which I am aware that the location of a convention influences the outcome of a presidential race. Indeed, the research – what little of it there is – suggests it will make no difference.

By way of background, some time back I reviewed an excellent paper written by Ben Lauderdale and Drew Linzer that cast a jaundiced eye on the ability of political scientists to forecast the outcome of presidential elections based on the so-called fundamentals, such as the status of the economy or whether the U.S. was at war or peace. Linzer, as some of you might recall, created the Votamatic website that used state-based polling to predict long before anyone (I think Drew issued his first prediction in June!) that Obama would win the 2012 presidential election with 331 electoral college votes. That prediction, as it turns out, was exactly correct. Note that on this website Drew utilized a Bayesian forecast model that essentially established a set of prior expectations rooted in Alan Abramowitz’s “time-for-a-change” forecast model, but then updated the Abramowitz forecast by incorporating state-based polls as they came in. By the time election day came around, Linzer’s model was almost entirely driven by state-based polls – it had largely discarded the Abramowitz forecast – and it nailed the final tally right on the nose.

Despite (because of!) this success, Linzer and his coauthor are skeptical regarding the accuracy of fundamentals-only based forecast models. In the Lauderdale/Linzer paper I reviewed, the authors argue “that it is a mistake to take any of these fundamentals-based model predictions too seriously.”  Elsewhere I will discuss why they are skeptical of most forecast models.  However, having cast doubt on the ability of traditional forecast models to predict the national vote with any degree of precision, the authors then proceed to present their own Bayesian forecast model, based on the 16 elections during the period 1952-2012. This model deliberately incorporates many of the elements in the most popular structural forecast models, but in a way designed to allow “the data to reveal which among a potentially large set of candidate variables are most predictive, letting forecasters remain agnostic about the economic and political factors that ‘really’ matter for predicting elections.” I will leave it to you to peruse their findings (although I find it somewhat reassuring that some of the usual suspects, such as economic measures, do seem statistically correlated with outcomes, albeit with a high degree of uncertainty).

I hope to discuss their results in a later post. For the purposes of today’s announcement by Republicans regarding the convention location, however, one of their findings is particularly relevant: Lauderdale and Linzer include a variable designed to measure the impact of a party’s convention on the presidential vote share!  They conclude, with what surely will disappoint Republicans, that “There is little evidence that the location of the national convention is predictive…” To be sure, the authors are careful to note that their forecast model also contains a great deal of uncertainty. Nonetheless, there’s nothing in the paper to suggest that choosing Cleveland will help Republicans win Ohio.

If there’s no evidence that convention location has much discernible impact on the presidential vote, then why choose Cleveland? The short answer is – why not? Doubtless party officials comforted themselves by noting that no Republican candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio. Of course, there’s a whole list of election-related nostrums like this that are of dubious relevance.  Still, there’s no evidence it will hurt the party’s chances and there’s always the chance that, the Lauderdale/Linzer finding notwithstanding (and I have no evidence Republican party officials are even aware of the paper!) that it might help at the margins. In short, the decision was likely driven by the same reasoning that leads candidates to kiss every baby and shake every hand – they don’t know if it will help their electoral prospects, but it probably can’t hurt.

[UPDATE 12:03 Wednesday. Harry Enten has some data that comes to the same conclusion as Lauderdale/Linzer: convention location doesn't matter.  See here.]

For now, however, I’m sticking with political science. Cleveland Rocks – but probably not when it comes to influencing the presidential election!