Thursday, May 31, 2012

Congressional Partisanship: a View from the Inside

After my first post on Congressional partisanship, I got into an interesting e-mail exchange with a top House staffer. I thought I would share a portion of this conversation which clearly expresses from an insider's perspective several of the themes that this blog is dedicated to exploring: the notion that lobbyists and interests groups are integral parts of political parties, that partisanship is at least partially a form of team loyalty, and that there are strong electoral incentives to conform.

My correspondent writes:

One thought with respect to partisan polarization.  It does have something to do with team work.  Our Members see themselves as much more part of a team now than ever before (team work on fundraising, voting, and agenda-setting are all in high gear) We operate more like "shirts and skins" than I ever remember.   Here's a related point.  I think the rise of more organized interest group behavior has something to do with it too. 
Most lobbyists are shirts and skins now too.  It wasn't always this way.  Lobbyists used to play both sides of the aisle.  Some still do, but the "rise of the partisan lobbyist" is something that needs to get built in to the polarization story.   
Further, most interest groups (or lobbyists) don't stake out positions that are focused on enacting a legislative product.  They are focused on reflecting their own best interests and ideal positions, often wrapped in a communications narrative that fits the particular party they are trying to win over. 
To the extent that lawmakers support these positions (to win financial support, get good scorecard ratings, etc) they are supporting positions that move away from consensus rather than toward it.  Interest groups are strategic, just like Members.  And I think this leads their lobbyists to take positions that make finding consensus with the Senate and the President more difficult. 
Changes in technology and the tools interest groups now use have made it almost impossible for lawmakers to support compromises without getting savaged from groups that are not getting everything they want from the policy process. Bottom line: interest groups (and the rise of the institutionalization of lobbying) may have a role encouraging Members to act more like teammates and encourage more polarization.
I thank my correspondent for his willingness to share and promise to revise and extend as needed.

Did The Party Decide? The Best Candidate Who Can Win

As one of the authors of The Party Decides, I've been asked several times this nomination cycle how I think the Republican nomination is going according to our theory. I haven't said much, mostly because I didn't want to sound defensive or hair-splitting. It's a little hard to remember, even now, how serious and smart people thought that Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich deserved to be taken seriously. Or how Santorum's surge was significant. The level-headed position that Romney would no doubt win sometimes seemed crazy. There were weeks in which Romney would win more delegates than Santorum, but the headlines seemed not to care.

But I and my co-authors will be talking about this on Friday. As Seth posted yesterday, the University of Denver is hosting one of the general election presidential debates, and in anticipation of that event, DU is also hosting a number of events related to the election this year. This includes a panel set up by MOF partner Seth Masket entitled Did The Party Decide? Martin Cohen, David Karol, John Zaller and I will all be in attendance. The panel will be live-streamed, and Mischiefs of Faction will link to it.

Now, with Romney this week reaching 1144, it's easy to say that the "insider" candidate won, and that much of the party rallied to his side when he was threatened by these other candidates. That sounds like a win for The Party Decides. But not so fast. The 2012 cycle wasn't quite what we expected. It's not that Santorum made a run for it. McCain and Bradley both made it a race in 2000, but those are some of the strongest cases for parties choosing their candidates early and backing them throughout.

No, the weird thing about 2012 is that the party really was never that excited about Romney.

Our argument essentially has two parts. Working from the end, we argue that when party leaders unite behind a candidate, they can help him to victory. And since that's true, we argue that the party should unite behind a candidate, one who balances their desires for ideologically loyalty and campaign prowess. In 2012, the party insider candidate won, in part because of support and money from traditional Republicans. But while Romney was their apparent choice, most party leaders didn't much get involved at all.

This has happened before. Party leaders mostly stayed on the sidelines in the 2008 races, and Democrats did in 2004. Democrats were hesitant in 1988 as well. Why? Why, if the party can almost guarantee its choice if they unite, do they ever fail to unite?

The answer is that the blanace they are trying to pull off is hard. The problem in general is the party knows they can't just nominate the person they think would be the best president. They also try to nominate someone who can win. In 2012, the candidates who seemed like they would perform best in the general election -- Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman -- did not appeal to the party base. And the candidates who most appealed to the base -- Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum -- did not seem like general election material. So the party was in a bind. Contrast that with 2000, when Bush was strong on both fronts. Or 2008 for the Democrats, when both Clinton and Obama were.

The problem was especially difficult in 2012, but that's a subject for a post tomorrow. And for the Denver audience tomorrow.

How do you solve a problem like the top-two primary?

California's voters dealt the state's major parties somewhat of a blow two years ago with this passage of Proposition 14, which created a Louisiana-style top-two primary. (A little bit of background here.) The top-two primary means that for any given office, voters may choose from candidates from any party. Voters in the 47th congressional district, for example, are presented with a list of four Democrats and four Republicans. (You can see some others here.) The top-two vote getters in the primary, which will be held on June 5th, will go to a November general election.

The probable outcome in the safer districts is that you'll end up with two candidates of the same party running against each other. An Orange County district may end up with a moderate Republican facing off against a conservative Republican; a San Francisco district will likely end up with two Democrats for November. This is a situation which may favor more moderate candidates, who stand to win independents and minority party voters in the fall. Indeed, some moderate Republican groups in California are seeing this as an opportunity to win some representation in the statehouse, and some Republican candidates who haven't signed an anti-tax pledge may actually have a shot this year. (Although the Washington Post is reporting that this may be more of a nationwide trend.)

These possibilities are unnerving to party leaders, of course, and they have come up with an interesting solution. Both parties have endorsed candidates in many of the congressional and state legislative races, hoping to signal to loyal partisan voters just who the true Republican or Democrat is. Now, as it happens, this endorsement information does show up in the voter pamphlet sent out by the Secretary of State, but not on the same page as the candidate listings. That is to say, any voter interested in getting a party's advice on a race will have to turn some pages and do a bit of extra reading. The signal really isn't in their faces. But through these endorsements, party leaders are hoping to get around the top-two structure and produce something more like the closed primary that the state has used for years.

It'll be interesting to see just how effective this is. I should point out, though, that a fair amount of evidence suggests that opening up a primary does little or nothing to moderate politicians. A paper I did with Eric McGhee, Nolan McCarty, Boris Shor, and Steve Rogers found just about no consistent effect of primary rules on the partisanship of elected officials. Then again, we don't have too many examples of states using a top-two system. Louisiana has such a system, and its state legislature is notably depolarized. Perhaps this system could have such an effect on California, but I'd say the odds are low. Party leaders are quite adept at working around such challenges. We'll know more soon.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Demise of Senate Consensus

A month ago, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann sparked a debate with their WaPo column, "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem." Personally, when I talk to reporters I try to be even-handed and to take the long view of history; surely Republicans have their complaints about Democratic behavior, and we can definitely go back in time and identify similar periods of high partisanship. 

Ornstein and Mann, however, correctly identify an anecdote that I found particularly revealing at the time: the January 2010 effort by Senate Republicans to defeat the debt commission that they had been calling for, with the swing votes coming from Republican cosponsors of the proposal. Returning to the theme of partisanship vs. polarization from yesterday, an ideologically extreme group of legislators will nonetheless jump at the chance to change policy when offered exactly what they are demanding. A partisan team, on the other hand, will vote against anything to keep the other side from getting a "win" and diluting their message.

Still, that's just one anecdote. Where's the evidence that there has been a major shift in legislative behavior? One measure used by legislative scholars is the size of winning coalitions on final passage votesThe size of these winning coalitions is a common measure of the degree of consensus on legislative decisions. Large coalitions suggest that, in the end, the members of the two parties come to an agreement on whether a bill should pass (most likely) or fail (unlikely). The process leading up to this decision may be contentious, and some controversial measures may be weeded out along the way, but large final passage margins suggests that some sort of consensus has developed. 

This figure displays the median coalition size on final passage votes from 1901 to 2010, including all bills, Senate resolutions, and joint resolutions except proposals that are statutorily protected against obstruction (trade agreements, budget resolutions, etc.).

From 1901 to 2006, there is an obvious trend toward increasing coalition size. In my book, I interpret this trend as evidence of the increasing influence of obstruction: senators are increasingly able and willing to filibuster bills that lack the support of a supermajority of the Senate, so bills pass by consensus or not at all. Over the last four years, however, the median coalition size has plummeted to levels not seen since the 1950s. Unlike the 1950s, however, this cannot be reasonably be interpreted as evidence that the majority party often succeeds without a filibuster. On the contrary, it is evidence that compared to the behavior of minority parties over the last four decades, the current minority party is extremely unlikely to arrive at a bipartisan compromise with the majority party. This forces the majority party to pass major measures without any support from the minority party (health care reform) or with a small number of Republican votes (2009 stimulus bill, banking reform). 

To be fair, Republicans will complain that their tactics are a response to attempts by Democratic leaders to limit their chance to debate measures openly. We shall return to this point in a later post. For now, I simply note that something systemic is going on in the Senate; consensus has become much more rare, and that makes it difficult to get work done in a chamber that functions on cooperation.

Did the Party Decide?

The book The Party Decides (of which my co-blogger Hans Noel is a co-author) depicts modern presidential nominations as being largely under the control of party elites. That is, networks of party officials, officeholders, major donors, activists, and others coordinate on a nominee long before voters ever enter a polling booth or a caucus location. They pick a candidate who's credible enough on issues of importance to the party elites and they make sure that candidate has the resources necessary to prevail in the primaries and caucuses.

This book was published in 2008. How well does it describe the events of 2012? The authors -- Marty Cohen, David Karol, John Zaller, and Hans -- will be gathering this Friday, June 1st, at the University of Denver to address this very issue. (More details here.) If you're anywhere near Denver, you're welcome to attend. If you can't make it, there should be a live feed available here starting at 2PM MDT, and I hope to post a recording of the event when it becomes available.

The "real" Obama: You're soaking in it

Jonathan Bernstein writes on Plum Line about the absurdity of trying to figure out who the "real" Obama is:
We’re in an era of partisan presidencies, in which the personality, preferences, and ultimately goals of the person in the Oval Office aren’t nearly as important as what the party thinks. That means, too, that it’s mostly a waste of time trying to figure out whether the real Mitt Romney is the moderate problem-solver who was governor of Massachusetts or the fire-breathing “severe” conservative we’ve seen on the campaign trail over the last few months. What’s far more important is figuring out what the coalition who nominated him and is trying to elect him really wants, because that’s how he’ll actually govern.
This is a key point, and one that we don't hear nearly enough in our political coverage. (Brendan Nyhan also wrote on the subject back in February.) When we hear pundits claim that we don't really know what Obama might do in a second term when he no longer faces reelection, there are two important things we should keep in mind.

First, we already "know" about as much about Obama as we ever will. I put "know" in quotations because a lot of us -- both his supporters and detractors -- firmly believe a lot of things about Obama that go well beyond established fact. But beyond that, there just isn't all that much more to learn about him that isn't already out there. He wrote two autobiographies, his background was meticulously dissected by journalists and his rivals within the Republican and Democratic parties, he's on TV every day, and we've seen the decisions he makes as president for over three years. We have more than enough information on which to evaluate the man.

Second, the same things that have constrained him in his first term would continue to do so in a second. Obama is a creature of his party, subject to institutional constraints. When Democrats held the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he pushed a solid Democratic agenda, straight out of decades of party platforms. When Republicans controlled part of the Congress, he reined in his agenda and sought to protect that which had passed earlier. There's every reason to believe he'd continue to act the same way in a second term.

But what if the reelection motive is gone? Won't we then see his true self come through? Well, partisan and electoral constraints on a president are never really gone. At the beginning of a second term, he'd be concerned politically about the 2014 midterm elections, trying to build on Democratic seat shares in the Congress or at least mitigate potential losses. And as 2016 comes around, he'll be thinking about cementing his legacy, which comes most easily when one secures the election of an heir who will protect it. All these motivations will keep Obama from going to far to the left (which could damage his party's nominees) or moving too far to the center (which will anger party activists). And if you're thinking that Obama will finally launch his vast socialist takeover in the two months between election day 2016 and the 2017 inauguration, well, get used to disappointment.

The real Obama? You're seeing it every day.

Madison and Factions, Part II

Tuesday, I wrote that, in Madison's terms, it's best to think of modern political parties as coalitions of factions. What makes them able to overcome Madison's cures for their mischief is that they form a united front, even when they might have different internal interests.

But one notable feature of contemporary parties is how much they really do agree. We do not live in the age of the oversized New Deal coalition, uniting northern liberals and southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. Or even the union of Taft and Eisenhower wings of the Republican Party. While the parties are still coalitions, with significant internal disagreements, for the most part the two parties are now ideologically cohesive, and the division between the parties is orders of magnitude more important than squabbles within them. (Calling them ideologically distinct is, I think, better than "polarized," but I am getting at the same idea.)

This development is the subject of my current book project, "The Coalitions Merchants." And it magnifies the difficulty in curing the mischiefs of faction through Madison's means. Not only do the parties unite to form alliances across the large republic, but they also represent two broad ideological "factions" that might be large enough to compete on their own. Moreover, those ideological "factions" don't have to capture control of Madison's republic, they merely need to control one of its two major parties.

In short, ideologically distinct parties are more effective at thwarting Madison than big tent parties are. I am probably less concerned about "polarization" than some, and Mischiefs of Faction no doubt delve deeper into its implications in the coming months. Greg and Seth already have. For now, we should observe that one of the common cures for polarized parties is exactly what Madison warns us against.

Concerned observers generally react to ideological polarization by insisting that one or both of the major parties is behaving badly. They just need to stop being so extreme. At best, proposals aim to either circumvent the party system or try to otherwise mitigate the influence of ideological voices.

These would not be Madison's solutions. They amount to saying that some perspectives should be be allowed to participate in the process, something Madison called "worse than the disease." Rather than trying to fix our party system, Madison would advocate fixing out institutions, so that they would, in his words from Federalist 51, "oblige [government] to control itself." In short, we shouldn't be trying to fix our parties to make them work within our institutions. We should be trying to fix our institutions so that they can handle our parties.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Congress: Partisan, not Polarized

Since this is my first post, I want to say a few words about myself, some of the themes I will stress, and then make a quick point about parties in Congress.  Me:  I currently work in Miami, but (like Hans) I am from the Pacific Northwest. I went to Willamette University, worked in the U.S. House of Representatives, and then Ph.D.'d at UCLA. I have written a book on filibustering called, simply enough, Filibustering. Matthew Lebo and I are writing a book on Congressional parties, which provides fodder for this blog. My most widely-read work, however, is on the Death Star

Like Hans and Seth, I am interested in the connections between lobbyists, interest groups, donors, and political parties, and inn the effect of the nomination and election process on representation and governance. I am especially interested in Congressional parties. A lot of the academic work and media coverage of Congress attributes the conflict and gridlock we observe to "polarization"--the notion that Republicans and Democrats represent starkly different world views and the gaps between them are too vast to leap across. I find this unpersuasive. While it is certainly true that the Republican and Democratic parties tend to nominate candidates with different views on a range of "hot" issues, this does not explain the nature and extent of the partisanship we see in Congress. So my posts will tend to emphasize these themes:
  • Partisan conflict in Congress is a strategic choice: to a large extent, Republicans and Democrats fight because they want to.
  • Much of the "polarization" we observe is actually teamwork: legislators suppress their disagreements with their co-partisans so they can compete with the opposing party. 
  • A lot of the "legislating" that goes on in Congress consists of one party seeking to improve its reputation at the opposing party's expense, rather than actually striving to, you know, make the world a better place or the U.S. a stronger nation. This is not news to regular Congress-watchers but it is at odds with a lot of the research that we do on Congress.
  • Parties manipulate legislative rules to gain competitive advantages and, especially, to shield their intra-party differences from public view.
  • Congressional partisanship actually has negative consequences for public policy.
Next:  Congressional Partisanship in Scatterplot Form!

Madison and Factions, Part I

We've titled this blog "Mischiefs of Faction" in honor of James Madison's use of the term. It's common to talk about modern parties using Madison's language, but it doesn't translate directly. This is part one of two posts about that. Are parties "factions," and if so, is their mischief cured?

Madison's argument is as follows. We have a problem in a republic, in that a group of people who are not interested in compromising with everyone else might be able to capture control of government and rule against the interests of the whole. This would be bad. But we can't just ban such groups. They flourish because (a) we disagree and (b) people are free to organize and act on those disagreements. So what should we do?

What we should do is ratify the Constitution, Madison says. The result will be a large republic. In such a republic, it will be very difficult for a faction to organize. If you implement a republic in your 6th grade homeroom, a clique of jocks and cool kids might be able to dominate. But if you expand to the entire school, then the cool kids from different classes might not recognize each other, and they would be unable to exercise control.

We undoubtedly have a large republic. We also have parties. If Madison was right that the former would cure the latter, what went wrong?

Madison had never seen a modern political party, and it's rather likely that if he did, he would say that it was a faction. But it wasn't what he had in mind. He was thinking about groups with a common interest. Something closer to an interest group. But modern political parties are coalitions of many different interests. Indeed, they are formed in part to directly surmount the obstacle Madison put in front of them. The republic is large, and the individual interests in it are small. It is hard for them to coordinate and organize. But they do. And to do so, they use the institution of a political party. It is how the interests of Wall Street coordinate with the interests of religious conservatives. It's how the interests of the working class unite with the interests of gay rights activists.

So Madison's cure is beaten because various interests unite to become a large interest, which can coordinate across the large republic.

And they unite even without having a common cause. But very recently, the two parties have become increasingly homogenous. Next: What Madison has to tell us about ideologically pure and polarized parties.

Why the Republicans had to nominate a flip-flopper

With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how Santorum, Gingrich, or anyone else ever had a chance at the Republican nomination this year. But let's not forget -- people were absolutely freaking out about those possibilities just a few months ago. Romney was the troubled front-runner who had a 30% ceiling and was just barely defeating candidates he was outspending 10 to 1. He was also the candidate who allegedly could not be nominated because of his dalliances with moderation or because of his recent flip-flops.

David Karol has an interesting post at the Monkey Cage in which he argues that Romney's "very inconsistency was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for his success in capturing his party’s presidential nomination this year." But I think it goes further than Karol suggests. It's not just that Romney had to switch his positions to be a credible potential nominee. I would argue that any Republican presidential nominee today would have to be a serious flip-flopper.

One reason Romney's nomination was relatively predictable was that he was running against the sort of people who are simply never nominated for the presidency by the major parties. Gingrich had a notably unsuccessful and short term as Speaker and hadn't held public office in over a decade. Santorum's initial election to the Senate was somewhat of a fluke and his 2006 drubbing in a swing state did not bode well for him. Bachmann was a member of the House. Cain was an eccentric businessman. Parties almost invariably nominate current or recent senators or governors, and of the prospective field, only Pawlenty, Daniels, Christie, Palin, Perry, and Romney fit the bill. Three of those (Daniels, Christie, and Palin) seemed hesitant to fully jump into the contest, and among the three that jumped in enthusiastically, two of them (Pawlenty and Perry) had serious campaigning problems. Once the two of them had functionally dropped, it was hard to see anyone but Romney getting it, unless it was going to be a Really Unusual Year. And of course you never know whether or not you're in a Really Unusual Year until it's over, but by definition, they're really unusual, so the safe bet is that things are happening as usual.

But here's the key point about that: No one taking the stances Romney needed to take to win this year could have had the sort of résumé needed to be a typical major party nominee. The Republican Party has been moving to the right very quickly in recent years. Almost no one taking the stances that Romney is taking now could have been elected as a senator or a governor from most states just a few years ago. So, if you were consistently conservative (like, say, Bachmann or Santorum), you were either doomed to service in the House or to being kicked out of the Senate. If you had a presidential résumé, conversely, it was probably because your views were pretty moderate a few years ago. Arguably, the only person who can get nominated in the current Republican Party is someone who has pivoted to the right rapidly in the past decade. Rapid polarization makes flip-flopping a necessity.

Inaugural Post

Welcome, and thank you for visiting The Mischiefs of Faction. The name of this blog comes from the Federalist Paper #10, in which James Madison famously warned about the dangers of selfish political groups but conceded their inevitability in a free nation. While Madison had never seen a modern political party, many today take his warning as an indictment of our political parties: bickering, polarized Democrats and Republicans that might seem to be ruining democracy.

We take a slightly different view, close to that of political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, who somewhat less famously claimed that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” Parties help to organize debate, to generate policy ideas, to provide critiques of the ruling administration, to encourage voter turnout, and to give elections meaning. Parties and other factions do make their mischief, but a democracy without them would be impoverished in fundamental ways.

This blog is devoted to advancing and debating our knowledge of political parties. Our main focus, at least initially, is on the "elite" side of parties. That is, we're interested in the things that party leaders, broadly defined, do to build and protect their parties and win debates and elections. A major theme in our research—individually and collectively—is that American political parties are best understood as broad teams of actors, not just politicians and formal organizations. The true Republican and Democratic parties also include allied media, think tanks, donors, Super PACs, and perhaps even bloggers. We will certainly pay some attention to public opinion, although that is not our main area of expertise and there are already several excellent blogs dealing with this topic. Our writings will largely stay focused on trends in the United States, both nationally and at the sub-national level.

The founders of this blog attended graduate school together and collectively have nearly half a century of experience in political science. Additionally, each of us worked in political positions, to one extent or another, prior to entering academia. Between us, we have experience in journalism, in the White House, on Capitol Hill, on campaigns, and in local government, and our perspectives are informed both by our research and by these "real world" experiences.

“Mischiefs of Faction” joins a growing list of political science blogs aimed at making political science research more accessible and available to the media and the general public, perhaps most notably The Monkey Cage. We share that mission, but we aim to promote dialogue not only between political scientists and journalists, but also among political scientists, and anyone else interested in the role of political parties in democracy

Again, welcome, and thank you for joining us. Let the games begin.