Viewer Mail: Murray Dry, Specter and the Future of the Party System

It’s viewer mail time. As most of you know, ever since this blog went on the air in the late 1950’s I’ve periodically taken the opportunity to catch up with your comments and questions, which are often more illuminating than the blogs to which they refer.  Let me begin by noting my colleague Murray Dry’s mild objection to my criticism of New York Time’s reporter Jeff Zeleny’s question at Obama’s last press conference.  In case you missed it, Zeleny asked Obama, “During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving this in office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?”  Obama responded in a half-humorous, half serious manner, dutiful responding to each of Zeleny’s four miniquestions. My initial reaction was that the question was a perfectly good waste of a precious opportunity. Far better that someone had pushed Obama on torture, or Afghanistan, or health care than ask this, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” type question.  Upon reflection, however, I think that’s too positive a reaction – the question was worse than that – it was completely asinine and Zeleny should have his press accreditation revoked.

Murray disagrees.  He writes,   “When I first read this I was not sure if you were referring to the question I thought you were, which, I confess was the one that most interested me. Now I know that it was and I want to reply. Zeleny’s was the only question, I believe, that elicited a spontaneous reply and I found that both refreshing and informative.  Assuming that we do not disagree on that, I am guessing that your interest in the press conference is more like that of an umpire in a chess match: what moves are put on the President and how ably does he reply, which is to say, how effectively does he manage to “stay on message” without necessarily telling us anything new. Is that about it?”

I understand and empathize with Murray’s reaction.  Like all professors, we appreciate, I think, “students” (especially former Harvard Law students!) who demonstrate that they can think on their feet when thrown a curveball.  It’s how we test our grad students, or senior honors candidates, during their oral defense.  I confess, however, that I don’t think there’s much correlation between being able to react to an off-script question and being an effective president.  Indeed, I am tempted to argue that if there is a relationship, it is inverse – those presidents who demonstrate a type of “lawyer’s skill” at thinking quickly on one’s feet and who can score debating points or engage in skillful repartee at press conferences often make the worst presidents. The reason is because they approach decisionmaking, and leadership more generally, as if it is a logic problem that can be solved through sheer intellect. More generally, I worry that academics (and I’m not pointing the finger at Murray here) generally focus on the wrong attributes in assessing presidents – we should care less about verbal reasoning and SAT scores, and more about political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held values – none of which would be exposed by Zeleny’s question. I’m speculating in the absence of clear-cut data, of course. My more immediate reason for criticizing Zeleny’s question is that press conferences are most useful if they force presidents to explain policy decisions.  It’s not supposed to be an oral exam (if you can even call Zeleny’s softball question an “exam”.)  Students who do well on their oral exams should become professors – not presidents.

When the Arlen Specter story first broke, Jack Goodman wondered about a Ridge-Specter matchup.  I speculated that Ridge would be a tough opponent for Specter.  We now have two more polls suggesting that is the case.   A Susquehanna automated interactive poll (one in which respondents press numbers on the phone keypads in response to an automated voice) has Ridge beating Specter, 39-38% (within the poll’s margin of error, so essentially a tossup), but Specter beating the more conservative Pat Toomey 42-26%. A Public Opinion Strategy (a Republican polling firm) survey taken at about the same time had similar results; Specter beats Toomey 49-40, but loses to Ridge, 48-41%.

More interesting, perhaps, the POS poll also indicates that Specter would trounce the more liberal Democrat Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary, 57-20% and – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps – Ridge would handily beat conservative Toomey in the Republican primary, 60-23%.  These results provide additional ammunition for my initial claim that Specter’s voting patterns as a Democrat aren’t likely to vary much from when he was a Republican since his primary electoral opposition isn’t likely to come from the Left – it’s from the moderate Right.  The results have also, if news reports are to be believed, encouraged Ridge to consider tossing his hat into the ring.  All this has to make Democrats think they were better off if Specter had remained a Republican, which might have kept Ridge out of the race altogether and opened it up for a true Democrat to defeat Specter in 2010.

Reacting to my blog on changing partisan affiliation among the general public, Andrew suggests that as national politics have become more polarized, people have moved from being weak partisans to self-identifying more as leaning independents – that is, they’ve become less wedded to the parties.  I’ve graphed that movement here.  The upper trend line shows the decline in “weak partisans” and the lower trend line shows the increase in “leaning independents” (I’ve included linear trend lines as well).  The middle line shows the curvilinear trend of the strong partisans, revealing a gradual decline from the high in 1964 to its low point in 1978, where it begins increasing again.

Andy seems to be correct that there’s an inverse relationship between the number of weak partisans and those self identifying as leaning independents, but the relationship seems to predate the gradual increase in strong partisans beginning at the start of the Reagan presidency in 1980.  In other words, weak partisans began switching to leaning independents even before the uptick in the number of strong partisans in the public.  A superficial read would suggest Andy has the causal relationship backward – that as a subset of the public became less wedded to parties, another portion reacted by strengthening their party attachments.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that pattern – thoughts?  Of course, it may be that the two patterns are not related at all.

Finally, if you get a chance take a look at Marty’s very thoughtful comment regarding my previous blog on changing partisan attachments. I want to respond more fully to his warning re: the potential “dark side” to malleable partisan attachments; that parties’ use of fear as a framing strategy can swing support their way.  This is really a fascinating issue that deserves a more complete response.  As a tease, however, let me offer a somewhat different take:  that a significant subset of people doesn’t hold “coherent” ideological views that correspond closely to a single party platform. Instead, they mix and match policy views without regard to ideological consistency.  As a result, they are quite willing to switch party allegiances (and candidates) depending on the issues du jour.  That’s what I tried to suggest when I argued that there is a core of “moderate” Americans who tend to be quite pragmatic in their policy views and moderate in their ideological leanings.

As always, keep those comments coming!  We are here to serve…


  1. I realize I’ve been very much an “Olivier-One-Note,” but honestly what else can I do when faced with this:

    “We should care less about verbal reasoning and SAT scores, and more about political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held values – none of which would be exposed by Zeleny’s question.”

    None of which WOULD be exposed by Zeleny’s question. Get that? Professor Dickinson says the question had no chance of getting any information about Obama’s political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held values.

    My heavens. If you graduate from Middlebury College believing that, please don’t bother sending me your resume. The notion that Obama’s answer to what had surprised/enchanted/etc him most about the office just COULD NOT elicit that information should be self-evidently wrong.

    Now, mind you, I tend to think that presidents by their words typically let us see the principles/beliefs/values that they want us to see and by their actions typically shed quite a bit more light on the subject. But that’s a whole other lecture in Twilight.

    One of the challenges for reporters who have the incredible privilege of being able to ask the president a question is to decide, well, what to ask. You have your ‘spot news’ questions (“Sir, a suicide bomber killed X today in Country Z. What impact if any does this have on the peace process there?”), you have questions about future decisions (“Sir, there’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Under what circumstances would you nominate someone with X beliefs?”), you have questions meant to challenge the president (“You’ve called the violence in Country A ‘genocide’ but have ruled out sending US troops to end it. Do you worry that history will see that as tolerating genocide?”), you have all kinds of open-ended questions, including a classic (this one from John Dickerson) “In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?”

    It is a sad fact of life that our questions are often judged by the answers they elicit. John (disclosure: He’s a friend) could have drawn a boilerplate, talking-points answer from then-President Bush, one that Professor Dickinson would mock here as doomed, fated to failure. But he didn’t. He got an interesting answer. And the question was viewed as genius by Bush’s critics and a horrible piece of evidence that the America-hating White House press corps had it in for Bush from the president’s most diehard supporters. (I thought it was a gamble that paid off handsomely).

    The thing is, though, that we have no idea what, exactly, our questions will draw from the president. Talking points? A flash of genuine empathy/anger? News of a recently made decision? And neither does Professor Dickinson, which is why I’m sitting here in the Senate Press Gallery shaking me fist at my computer screen and typing in a please-try-the-decaf way.

    “My more immediate reason for criticizing Zeleny’s question is that press conferences are most useful if they force presidents to explain policy decisions. It’s not supposed to be an oral exam (if you can even call Zeleny’s softball question an “exam”.) Students who do well on their oral exams should become professors – not presidents.”

    The first part isn’t wrong, but there’s lots to unpack here. First, “useful” to whom? To the White House? To the press corps? To the viewers? To academics? To foreign audiences? To domestic audiences? To the president’s opponents? To historians? Interests overlap, sure, but they are not identical.

    Even just inside the press corps you have different answers. It’s “useful” if the president: Makes first-degree news (announces a new decision, for example, or clarifies what US policy is after rival top aides offer different versions of it, or responds forcefully to a recent noteworthy event), makes second-degree news (says something that isn’t hard ‘spot’ news but is remarkable — for instance, says something contradicted by the facts, or provides information about how a future decision will be made, or deliberately leaves a given US policy ambiguous). Or if something remarkable happens (shoe throwing!). Among the more cynical, it’s useful if he tries to open a locked door, given TVs something they can show again and again.

    I should add that all of the terminology I’m using is my own, and not the accepted cant of the media.

    “Students who do well on their oral exams should become professors – not presidents.”

    Seriously? Barack Obama = should have become a professor not president? Hunh. Wow.

  2. Will – Nope, missed it completely (I confess that yesterday was spent reviewing a book, not reading the news!) I’ll follow up on your lead and, if I can, try to respond.

    Olivier – No need to apologize for being a self-described “Olivier-One-Note”. Someone has to defend the press against my attacks. And Murray is on your side on this one! Although, if you read my initial blog after Obama’s 2nd press conference (and if you haven’t, I wish you would!) you’ll surely note just how effusive and fulsome and enthusiastic I was in praising almost all the journalists who participated for the questions they asked (except for Jeff and, ok, Chuck Todd. But Chuck’s not really a journalist, is he?) Surely I deserve kudos for that?

    I confess I don’t see how your John Dickerson example does anything but support my broader point: it may have elicited rage from the right-wing chattering class, but it was a substantively probing question that focused on Bush’s action to date. Although it was relatively open-ended it did not provide much wiggle room – either Bush owned up to a mistake, or he didn’t.

    As for the purpose of press conferences, careful readers of my previous blogs will recall that I have spent considerable time pointing out what the press, the public and the president hope to gain and stand to lose by holding a press conference. My basic point is that their interests don’t overlap very much. By now, I think most readers know my target audience – and it isn’t the president or the press (although I’m more than happy to help out when they ask.)

    I certainly agree that no one can be sure how presidents will react to a particular question – but one can certainly estimate probabilities; some questions are simply better than others – better at achieving ANY of the goals you cite. And there was a high probability, in my view, that Zeleny’s question would achieve none of your benchmarks. How he could not see that baffles me – and did at the time he asked it.

    Of course, reasonable people (including experienced journalists) can disagree with me, particularly since my critique of Zeleny’s question involves nothing remotely approaching political science and is instead pretty much my opinion. (Although you get both here, I do try to distinguish research from opinion. My hope is that there’s more of the former than the latter on this blog.) As for Zeleny’s question, my opinion was – and continues to be – that it was a horrendous waste of a valuable question opportunity, and Zeleny should be penalized by not being allowed to ask any more questions for a long, long time.

    However, Murray and you both provide valuable and informed countervailing arguments. That is, I hope, what differentiates this blog from most of the others – we actually encourage the exchange of ideas and views, rather than screaming past one another. After all, this blog is supposed to be educational. So keep those critiques (decaf or fully caffeinated) coming! (And what do others think about Zeleny’s question?)

    Finally, I have no idea if Obama took oral exams, never mind if he passed them. Nonetheless, I think the jury is still out regarding whether he would make a better professor than President… But since he’s president, my hope is that journalists ask questions that elicit insight into that job, rather than how well prepared he is to defend his honors thesis. (I will say that it is easier to be president than a professor – we have no staffs and do our own copy editing – but that’s another blog.)

  3. Professor Dickinson,

    Just wondering if you saw the article from the May 18, 2009 issue of Newsweek entitled “Prisoners of the White House.” Here’s the link:

    The article was basically “Bitter Harvest” but written for normal people. Haha. Is it too early to judge Obama on his use of the presidential staff or do you have some insight? The writer, Evan Thomas, seems to worry about Obama surrounding himself with too many “yes-men.” What do you think?


  4. The reason I brought up John Dickeron’s question is that I wanted to draw on a real-life example of how a question comes to be judged as “great” or “a softball.” You called it “probing,” here, but I think that the beauty of it was that it actually really *wasn’t* probing.

    Then-president Bush could simply have swatted it away with the talking points he used later in his presidency: “I make the mistake of being over-optimistic about my ability to change the tone of Beltway politics.” And, as I speculated above, you would mock that as a hopeless question.

    Seriously, go back and look at Dickerson’s question. Consider — please, consider — how the President’s answer shapes your judgment of a given question. What I’m saying is that you’re judging Zeleny’s question based on the answer (well, technically, the reply) that it elicited, and that this is a little bit dangerous.

    I’ll give you another example. More than a few of our critics, including Bill Moyers, have zeroed in on a question asked of Bush at the final press conference before the Iraq war. They’ve called it fawning, and stupid, and worse things besides. It was a question from American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan. April asked Bush how his faith was guiding him in the crisis.

    Here’s the thing. That question grew out of a news report that Bush had told some high-profile supporters that he was doing God’s will. That had piqued April’s curiosity, and she wrestled with how to ask about it. She thought about going directly for “there’s a news report that says this, is it true” but figured he’d swat it away. And so she went with the more roundabout way. He didn’t bite, and she got mocked — dishonestly, I might add, since she told a few of these critics the reasoning behind the question — as a fawning pro-Bush hack.

    People judge our questions based on all sorts of criteria — too nice, too mean, a ‘gotcha,’ hopelessly softball, etc. I’m just trying to shed a little light on the process from our perspective.

  5. I’m sorry I am just reading this now, but I had interpreted Professor Dry as critiquing the ‘oral exam’/’chess match’ approach to questioning, and praising the Zeleny question as a refrain from this standard approach. In short, the question was neither a ‘chess match’/’oral exam’ question, nor a prompt to explain policy decisions, but one which elicited an original reply with at least the possibility of shedding light on “political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held value.”

    It seems like we all agree the most valuable part of a news conference is the opportunity to discover “political instincts, prior experiences and deeply-held value.” If that’s the ultimate goal (in addition to policy explanations), what are the standards for evaluating questions? It may be that evaluating them is as much of an art as developing them. On the other hand perhaps the Zeleny question simply was not provocative enough to yield a meaningful response. That seems to be where opinions diverge.

    I think it’s quite likely that the interest of political science in news conferences is different than that of the press. We spend a lot of time evaluating the President’s responses in terms of their political implications. I think this tends to leads us to act like umpires in a chess match. To an outsider it might appear we have lost sight of the ultimate goal of questioning.

  6. Schieffer interviewing Zeleny on his presser question (so meta!):

    I think Zeleny’s question appeals to many in academia because it’s poetic; the tendency to abstract from praxis and towards theory is stronger in academia. I did think the question hit at something interesting: how entrancing (enchanting?) executive power is. When Obama said that he was frustrated by the fact that politicians aren’t deferring politics in this time of crisis, what he really meant was that he wished they’d consent to his agenda. This is the implication with most of his statements about post-partisanship and bipartisanship, as well. Zeleny compared this to Bush’s “this’d be a whole heckuva lot easier if I were dictator” answer. It’s interesting to see the institutional bias of Obama moving from the legislative branch to the executive play out–we have a strong executive in this country, and recent leaders of the unified branch seem to be nothing but tempted by the great amount of power they inherit. Or maybe it speaks to Obama’s idealism.

    Also, as a matter of housekeeping, I’d like to highlight that blog posts are “posts”–not “blogs.” “Blog” is a portmanteau of “web” and “log.” It can also be a verb. This is my contribution as a member of the iPod generation.

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