The Amateur Politician

In Vermont, anyone can run for Governor, and they frequently do. I was reminded of this after watching last Thursday’s gubernatorial debate  which put all seven candidates on the same dais for the first time. It was quite a show!  You can watch it here (hit the “featured” button at the top and scroll down the items listed on the right hand side of the page to go directly to the debate).

The cast of characters include two-time Democratic incumbent Governor Peter Shumlin. In Thursday’s debate, Shumlin reiterated his intent to move ahead with a single payer government-financed universal health coverage plan in Vermont, arguing that by lowering health care costs it will boost the economy. So far, however, he has conspicuously avoided explaining how it will be funded. Whenever Shumlin speaks at these debates, I struggle to resist leaping up and yelling “You lie!” at the television.

If you squint just right, he almost looks like Dustin Hoffman.  In that vein, I have one word of advice for Shumlin: “Plastics.”

Shumlin’s main rival is Republican Scott Milne.

He is the owner of a local travel agency who has never held elected office. It shows. His primary platform appears to be to oppose everything Shumlin supports without clearly standing for any alternative. So, Milne would pull the plug on Vermont’s single-payer health plan but if other states are willing to try such a plan and it proves successful, then Milne is willing to revisit the issue. “When you straddle a thing, it takes a long time to explain it,” Will Rogers once proclaimed. Milne’s problem is that no one can stay awake long enough to hear his explanations.

The five other candidates on the ballot include an aging socialist, an earth activist and hemp promoter, a woman with a big hat, a libertarian, and an independent who appears to be a character from Duck Dynasty.

Peter Diamondstone is the Liberty Union candidate, but he made it clear at the outset of the debate that he’s running as a Socialist. Diamondstone, who is nearing 80 years old, is a frequent candidate in Vermont for statewide office, having run previously – and unsuccessfully – for offices ranging from Attorney General to Governor to Senator.

If you look closely at the PBS video above of Thursday’s debate, you’ll see that Diamondstone appears to be wearing “jorts” (jean shorts.)  This must be some sort of Socialist statement.

Cris Ericson, another repeat candidate for elected office, stood next to Diamondstone at Thursday’s debate, decked out in a very large hat. Just to cover her bases, she is also running for Congress this year. Here is a shot of her from a previous campaign.

Perhaps her most memorable moment Thursday night came when she accused the Governor of violating the civil rights of a diabetic Vermont transportation worker by shutting down Vermont rest areas, thus making the poor worker go an extended period without being able to pee in a proper facility.  I noticed moderator Stewart Ledbetter trying, with limited success, not to smile too much during Ericson’s civil rights speech.

Dan Feliciano is the Libertarian candidate  who stood out during the debate for both his serious mien and his clearly stated agenda.

No one can complain that Feliciano’s positions are muddled.  He demonstrated single-minded opposition to the single-payer system and a clear embrace of free-market principles.  He seemed almost too sensible to be in the debate.

Bernard Peters, a retired Vermont transportation worker who would fit well as a cast member on Duck Dynasty, is running as an independent.

He stood out on Thursday for his folksy homilies which fit well with his self-proclaimed “grassroots campaign.” His primary concern is to overturn the recently passed lake shore protection act, which he characterized as the “biggest landgrab by the state of government. since they took land from the Indians.” He also wants to reduce regulations that discourage business growth or “they’re going to pass us by like roadkill on the interstate.”

Finally, there is Emily Peyton. She is the “organic” candidate – her platform is captured concisely on her candidate webpage, where – along side pictures of ripe fruit – she pledges “allegiance to the Earth, and to the Beings with whom we share her.” Emily is a “founding member of Hempfully Green! A consulting group for hempcrete construction and other hemp-related products.” I don’t rule out the possibility that she was using her product during the debate.

Who is going to win this race? No incumbent governor has lost a bid for reelection in Vermont since the early 1960’s, and polls currently show Shumlin with about a 10% lead over Milne.  However, Shumlin is polling below 50% at this point, so I’m not prepared to give the race to him quite yet.  Still, unless someone can amp up Milne’s demeanor, I don’t see how he is going to excite enough voters to defeat a sitting governor, however vulnerable the incumbent might be.

Many years ago the political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a very famous study of the “Amateur Democrat” in which he argued that political party regulars were being replaced by “amateurs” who believed “that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and motive of political action.” Judging by Thursday’s debate, the amateurs have a long way to go.  But that is fine with me.  I like living in a state where politics remains more of an avocation rather than a profession, and where people of all types can run for office.  Who knows?  Someday I might want to run for Governor too.  It’s nice to know my voice would be heard.  But first I’ll need to buy some jorts and grow some facial hair.

Dear Nate Silver: IT’S NOT MY FAULT!

Once again I am reminded of the power – both good and bad – of social media.

My post today discussing the results from the latest Senate forecast models is up here at U.S. News.  I should point out that I very much appreciate the opportunity to post there – it enables me to reach a wider audience and generates more feedback here at my regular Presidential Power site. So I encourage you to check the U.S. News site out on a regular basis – it includes some great writers, including former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger.

But you should also know that I don’t write the titles to my posts there, and I certainly don’t get to create the twitter feed U.S. News uses to publicize the posts. So, when a tweet goes out from U.S. News linking to my post, as it just did, that reads “No, Nate Silver can’t predict who will win the Senate via @MattDickinson44”, and when CBS news correspondent Major Garrett retweets it to his more than 111,702 followers and when pollster Frank Luntz then forwards the link to his 48,000 followers, including Nate Silver, in this way – “@USNewsOpinion Them’s fightin’ words. (@MattDickinson44 vs. @NateSilver538)” – just remember: IT’S NOT MY FAULT!

In fact, if you read the post (please do!) you’ll see that I actually did not single out Nate Silver in any way that could be perceived as a knock on his forecasting abilities. Instead, I pointed out that the purely poll-based forecasting models have, over the last month, begun converging with the models that include fundamentals, exactly as I predicted they would in my previous post here. My other point, however, was that even though all the major forecast models that I follow are now giving Republicans a better than 50% chance of gaining enough seats to take a Senate majority, that is not the same thing as saying Republican control come November 4th is now a lock. Because so many of the Senate races remain close, with polling averages of less than 3% difference between the two candidates, and because the outcomes of those close races will affect who has a Senate majority, I don’t think the forecast models can really tell us right now who will control the Senate. With less than three weeks to go there still too much variability in the polling and, with the races so tight, the possibility that an unpredictable event will influence the outcome becomes greater. This isn’t a critique of the models – indeed, most of them (the Washington Post model is a notable exception) favor the Republicans by relative slim margins at this point, as this table indicates (purely poll-based forecasts in italics).

Picture1Put another way, the models are simply not precise enough for us to have much confidence regarding who will control the Senate on Nov. 4 based on the data we have today.

Two years back Nate Silver and I had a very constructive exchange regarding his presidential forecast model. (Interestingly, Sam Wang – whose forecast model Silver recently critiqued, also joined in on that previous exchange.) My major critique then was the lack of transparency in Silver’s model, which made it difficult for others to decipher the logic driving his predictions. For political scientists, forecasting is primarily a means to achieve a better understanding of elections more than it is an opportunity to showcase our forecasting skills, so it is imperative that we know how forecasts are constructed in order to assess their results. Since my earlier critique, however, Silver has come a long way toward showing us some of the moving parts in his models, as his post here explaining his Senate forecasts demonstrates. The ideal in this regard, however, is Wang, who generously provides the code for his forecasting model at his Princeton Election Consortium site.

So, please, take a peek at my latest post at U.S. News. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m ducking the incoming twitter blast that is surely coming my way.

Addendum 8:44 p.m. Frank Lunz responds to my twitter-based defense: “ 5m5 minutes ago

Yes, I too have had my own headache with a clickbait headline this week.”  Here’s the background to his experience with what he calls clickbait.

Leon Panetta: Traitor, Patriot – Or Something Else!

The publication of Leon Panetta’s memoir Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace has created the predictable but completely misguided reaction among media pundits of all partisan stripes. Panetta, of course, is a former congressman and long-time Washington insider who most recently served as President Obama’s CIA director and Secretary of Defense. In his memoirs, he recounts a number of instances in which he disagreed strongly with the President, including decisions regarding military support for Syria, cuts to the Pentagon budget and keeping troops in Iraq. While praising the President’s intellect, Panetta also suggests that too often the President “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”

What are we to make of Panetta’s critique? To some Panetta’s book is the latest indication of “stunning disloyalty”  exhibited by former Obama administration officials who have penned memoirs that are often quite critical of the President they once worked for. In addition to Panetta, card-carrying members of this group of turncoats include Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, each of whom published memoirs after leaving the Obama administration. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank acknowledges that previous presidents have been the subject of criticism from former aides, but he argues that taken collectively, these recent memoirs along with public criticism from other former Obama aides represents a “level of disloyalty [that] is stunning… .”

To some of Obama’s liberal defenders, this disloyalty tell us more about the President’s critics than they do about the President. In this vein, Michael Cohen issued this withering critique of Panetta, who he accuses of both incompetence and hypocrisy: “In Panetta’s obsessive focus on the politics of national security, his fetishization of military force and his utter lack of strategic vision, what is also evident is the one-dimensional foreign policy thinking that so dominates Washington—and which Panetta has long embodied.”

But others suggest that taken collectively, the memoirs by former Obama aides are best viewed as warnings issued by sincere patriots who are willing to risk personal attack in service of a larger cause. In this vein, Ed Rogers suggests: “Perhaps Panetta, Gates and Clinton are telling those who still serve in government that President Obama’s biases and instincts need to be challenged. The few adults left in the administration should not roll over, and the Republican opposition needs to be constantly vigilant in order to try to shape a more protective American national security posture. Maybe Panetta, Gates and Clinton are putting loyalty to a country at risk ahead of deference to the president who appointed them.”

Here is another thought. Maybe pundits should stop telling us what Panetta’s memoirs really say, and instead just take his words at face value and put them in some historical context. Taken as a whole, Panetta’s memoirs tell us that on important policy issues, he disagreed with the President. Surprise! These disagreements are the portions of his memoirs that have received the most media play. However, on many other issues – mostly not discussed in the media – Panetta thinks the President got it right.

Believe it or not, this is not unusual – Presidents and their aides often disagree. What most pundits do not understand is why these disagreements happen. Rather than reflecting disloyalty, the disputes are more often rooted in the differing vantage points occupied by the President and his department heads. In this regard where you sit really does determine where you stand. Why do Gates, Clinton and Panetta think the President “lost his way” (to use Panetta’s words) on national security issues? Maybe because from their perspectives – ones largely focused on keeping the U.S. safe from external attack – Obama seems unduly cautious. There’s nothing disloyal in making that argument – as aides with national security portfolios, it is their job to push the President on these issues when they think he gets it wrong. But Obama occupies a different, broader vantage point – one that must balance national security concerns with other issues affecting his ability to lead, such as public support for his policies and the political costs associated with engaging in another extended military conflict that may involve boots on the ground and all that entails. Understandably, these domestic concerns may weigh far more heavily on him as President than they do on the secretaries of State and Defense and the CIA director – none of whom have a domestic constituency.

Ironically, Cohen’s criticism of Panetta is spot on – but not in the sense Cohen intends. Cohen writes, “For Panetta, principles appear to be determined by wherever he happens to be sitting at any given moment.” That’s exactly right – and that’s how it should be. Leon Panetta’s concerns while serving as Clinton’s budget director should not be the same concerns he has while heading the CIA. And Barack Obama’s concerns as President must be broader than Panetta’s – or Gates’ and Clinton’s. This is not to say their criticisms of the President’s policies in the war on terror are illegitimate, or should not be heard. It is to say that they should be understood as emanating from individuals who occupy a particular position and policy portfolio whose focus is – and must be – more narrow than the President’s.

The history of the modern presidency is littered with the memoirs of often disgruntled former aides who, having left their position, are determined to tell their side of the story. Nor is it surprising that those who have left an administration before its conclusion are typically the most critical of the President’s policies – that’s often why they left! Indeed, a roll call of presidential aides who penned critical kiss-and-tell memoirs – many published while the President they served was still in office – would fill a small library; off the top of my head I can recall reading memoirs by Raymond Moley (FDR), Joe Califano (Carter), Don Regan (Reagan) and Paul O’Neill (Bush).  This is only the tip of the memoir iceberg of course. These are not, for the most part, memoirs penned by traitors or super patriots. They are instead reflections of public servants who tried very hard to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to them by virtue of their positions – and in so doing often clashed with their president.  Too often the media portrays these as differences based on personality clashes, or struggles for power.  In truth, however, they are the inevitable byproduct of  governing in a constitutional system of separated institutions competing for shared powers in which those heading these institutions occupy different vantage points, and thus have different concerns.

Senator Obama – Meet The Big Man: President Obama!

“The notion that as a consequence of that authorization, the president can continue down a failed path without any constraints from Congress whatsoever is wrong and is not warranted by our Constitution,”Remarks in 2007 by Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama criticizing President Bush’s decision to increase U.S. military forces in Iraq based on a 2001 congressional authorization.

If we gauge a president’s success by his ability to achieve campaign promises, there is no doubt that in foreign policy President Obama has fallen far short of the mark. As research by Middlebury College student Danny Zhang of presidential candidate Obama’s public remarks reminds us, Obama’s foreign policy agenda included two fundamental tenets: he would wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and he would return to a more collaborative and bipartisanship conduct of foreign affairs – one more nearly in accord with the Constitution.

Arguably neither tenet has been met. It is now clear that Obama will almost certainly bequeath to his successor an anti-terror military campaign in Iraq and Syria intended to destroy the Islamic State (IS) that even the most optimistic projections suggest will last years, and with uncertain odds of success.  And rather than consult with Congress, Obama has justified his current air campaign against IS on the Bush-era 2001 authorization by Congress to use military force against terrorists who attacked the United States – the very premise he rejected on the presidential campaign trail while a U.S. Senator.

It is tempting to conclude from this record that candidate Obama was naive, if not duplicitous. But I have no doubt that he sincerely believed his rhetoric – as did most of those who voted for him. He likely did believe that, as he indicated to the Boston Globe “[t]he President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” As I have often said, however, governing is far different than campaigning. The reason why President Obama’s foreign policy seems to have largely followed his predecessor’s blueprint is because the nature of the strategic threats to the United States has not changed across the two presidencies. Nor has the president’s constitutionally-based responsibility to protect the nation from attack. That combination of similar threats and a shared vantage point made it almost certain that President Obama’s foreign policy would not deviate markedly from George W. Bush’s – a point some of us have made before.

Indeed, arguably Obama’s biggest foreign policy mistake occurred when he did try to deviate from his predecessor’s blueprint by ordering a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. One can debate what precipitated the U.S. troop pullout; Obama’s supporters insist that Iraqi leader al-Maliki was unwilling to allow U.S. forces to remain under a strategy of force agreement that protected U.S. soldiers. More generally, as Obama argued in his recent 60 Minutes interview, it may be that the decision to withdraw was sound, but that the Iraqis then squandered the opportunity the U.S. left them: “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base.”

However, Obama’s former CIA director Leon Panetta is the latest ex-administration member to suggest Obama made little effort to overcome al-Maliki’s resistance to retaining a small U.S. military force in Iraq in order to stabilize the regime and provide security against terrorist attacks. In excerpts from his soon to be released book Worthy Fights, Panetta writes, “Those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Whatever the explanation, the reality now is that the U.S. is once again engaged in a military conflict in Iraq and Syria of indeterminate length and uncertain success. And, like his predecessor’s Iraqi war effort, Obama is trying to create an international “coalition of the willing” to help defeat IS. To date, however, the largely U.S.-led campaign of targeted air strikes has not appeared to have had much success in rolling back IS’s territorial gains. That leaves open the possibility that at some point the U.S. may have to increase its troop commitment beyond the nearly 2,000 now stationed in Iraq if Obama’s war aims are to be reached – a troop increase that many military experts suggest is inevitable.

Nor has President Obama appeared to heed candidate Obama’s advice, as exemplified in the opening quote to this piece, to conduct foreign policy in a more collaborative, bipartisan and constitutionally-acceptable manner. In fact, as noted above, Obama has cited the Bush-era authorization of military force as the legal basis for the current bombing campaign against IS. Critics contend that this smacks of presidential imperialism. In truth, however, Obama’s actions are consistent with those of his predecessors’, almost all of whom have sought to protect the presidency’s ability to fulfill its constitutional prerogative to defend the nation from attack. As Madison argues in Federalist 51, this effort to defend the presidency as an institution is both expected and desirable: “But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Under Madison’s reasoning, it is Congress’ role to push back against this assertion by Obama of prerogative power.  However, as I noted in this previous post, many congressional Republicans are applauding Obama’s newfound militarism while most Democrats do not want to take on their own president heading into a midterm election.

We should not be surprised, then, that as President, Obama more closely resembles President George W. Bush than he does Senator or candidate Obama. In the modern era, the United States – as the sole superpower – no longer has the luxury of choosing whether to take the lead in foreign affairs. That is a burden that cannot be removed, no matter how much Americans may yearn for – and candidates may promise – a return to normalcy. And the President, as the embodiment of national sovereignty, simply cannot delegate this leadership role to any other political actor.

In his study of American government Woodrow Wilson wrote, “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” In the modern era, however, as presidency scholar Richard Neustadt reminds us – and as President Obama has discovered – the president “nowadays cannot be as small as he might like.”

Senator Obama – meet the big man: President Obama.

Bombing ISIS: A New Imperial Presidency?

“The Constitution,” the eminent political scientist Edward Corwin famously declared, “is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” I was reminded of Corwin’s assessment when reading Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman’s recent New York Times op ed piece, in which Ackerman castigates President Obama’s justification for his decision to  initiate military action designed to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS). For Ackerman, Obama’s willingness to authorize air strikes without congressional approval smacks of “imperial hubris”, and “marks a decisive break in the American constitutional tradition.”

It does nothing of the sort, of course. To be sure, Ackerman makes a compelling case that the Obama administration’s use of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as the basis for taking military action against ISIS (and more recently against the Khorasan terrorist group as well) stretches credulity. The 2001 AUMF, you will recall, is the joint resolution passed by Congress in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks that authorized “the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” As Ackerman persuasively argues, “[I]t’s preposterous to suggest that a congressional vote 13 years ago can be used to legalize new bombings in Syria and additional (noncombat) forces in Iraq…. Not only was ISIS created long after 2001, but Al Qaeda publicly disavowed it earlier this year. It is Al Qaeda’s competitor, not its affiliate.” Presumably Ackerman would also dismiss administration attempts to utilize the 2002 joint congressional resolution that authorized the president to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” as an additional justification for bombing ISIS.

But Ackerman’s legal objections miss the point. The question is not whether a close textual reading of the 2001 or 2002 congressional resolutions support their use as the legal basis for airstrikes against ISIS – it is whether the Obama administration has the political support to make the case that they do. In short, the debate is over whether the public, as channeled through their elected representatives, supports Obama’s course of action – bombing ISIS – and not as Ackerman would have it, over Obama’s justification for his course of action. And this is exactly Corwin’s point. In a constitutional system in which foreign policy powers are shared, the relative effective influence exercised by the President and Congress in the foreign policy domain depends on how well each can enlist public support, as channeled through elected officials, for their preferred course of action. The Constitution, and subsequent statutes, only sets the parameters of this debate – it doesn’t determine the winner. This is why the Courts historically have refused to adjudicate conflicts between the two branches regarding the extent of the President’s war making powers, and why the War Powers resolution – beyond its notification requirements – has been of little help in resolving these disputes. Historically, Congress and presidents have differed over when, and whether, the War Powers resolution is applicable but neither side has so far been willing to precipitate a constitutional crisis by pushing their interpretation to the limit.

In determining who has the stronger case, then, regarding whether Obama can unilaterally authorize bombing ISIS, we would do well to spend less time parsing the wording of the Constitution and related texts, and focus instead on the politics of the matter. And politically, at this point, the evidence suggests that Obama’s interpretation will prevail – at least for now. This is because in the wake of the highly-publicized beheadings by ISIS of journalists, opinion polls show broad public support among Democrats, Republicans and Independents for targeted air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Given prevailing public opinion, it is unlikely that many members of Congress who are facing midterm elections in November are going to want an immediate debate regarding Obama’s authority to conduct airstrikes. Indeed, most Republicans who object to Obama’s strategy do so not because they oppose air strikes, but because they believe air strikes alone are not likely to achieve Obama’s stated objectives. Yes, there is some background grumbling among legislators regarding Obama’s willingness to act alone, but that grumbling is likely to remain muted until the results of the midterms are known.

At that point, however, if Republicans regain control of the Senate in November, and pad their current House majority, I have little doubt that they will use those political gains as leverage in order to force Obama to seek congressional support for continued military action – particularly if air strikes alone have not achieved their objectives. However, current polling suggests that any post-midterm Republican efforts to push Obama to widen U.S. involvement, including introducing “boots on the ground” against ISIS – an action that, so far, Obama has vowed not to take – may lack public backing. This may set up an interesting public debate regarding how much military involvement the public is willing to support in order to achieve Obama’s stated military objective of defeating ISIS.  Again, that debate is likely to turn on the politics of the issues – not legal interpretations of the President’s war-making authority.

My broader point is that too often pundits, and some of my political science colleagues as well, view unilateral presidential action as evidence of presidential imperialism or an imbalance of constitutional and statutory powers, when in truth it reflects congressional acquiescence, or even tacit support, for the president’s actions. Typically Congress does not acquiesce because its members have been cowed, or lack the requisite political authority to block the President. Members acquiesce because they think the President has the better argument, politically speaking. Moreover, despite all the talk about his predecessor’s allegedly imperial conduct, the fact is that George W. Bush sought, and received, congressional authorization for both the wars he initiated in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Rather than “a devastating setback for our constitutional order”, as Ackerman claims, Obama’s decision to move forward with military strikes while asking for Congressional support is in perfect keeping with our system of shared powers, and it reaffirms Corwin’s basic point. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, but when it comes to foreign policy the interpretation of that law is ultimately determined not by a close parsing of the constitutional text, or related statute, but by the effort of elected representatives to muster public support for their preferred foreign policy objective. In that ongoing struggle, the President, as a single actor, has certain advantages, including the ability, as Hamilton noted long ago, to act with “secrecy and despatch”. But history shows that Congress, if it musters the political will, has more than enough powers to bring any president to heel. Whether it will do so in this case depends in large part on what legislators hear from voters come November.