Friday, December 21, 2012

Policy Windows and Gun Control, PART II

Yesterday, I argued that right now, as the nation is grieving over Newtown, is the only time to have an effective push for policy change on guns or any other related issue.

But that policy process will have to have its effects through political parties, and that matters. The "primordial soup" of policy ideas that are floating around, waiting for the policy window to open, is not undifferentiated. There are liberal ideas and conservative ideas. Gun control is a liberal idea. Prayer in school or arming teachers are conservative ideas.

Seth has observed, accurately, that the Democratic Party had more or less given up on gun control in recent years. That's definitely true. And on that criterion, it's reasonable to say that the Democratic Party was no longer really "for" gun control.

But liberals most certainly are. There is a difference between an ideology and a party. A party is an institution that tries to win office and push for policy. An ideology is a more abstract set of preferences about policies, tied together by a mixture of principles, values and beliefs.

Today, the liberal ideology is associated with the Democrats, and so if the policy window opens on gun policy, it will be Democrats who will be responsive to liberal policy pushes. The kind of sustained pressure to shape the party that Seth wrote about may be needed, but this party is predisposed to listen to liberal ideas, and Democrats -- even those already in office -- may actually be quite responsive to pressure. Meanwhile, Republicans have a similar relationship with conservatives, who oppose gun control, and would favor other solutions.

So which solution wins depends a lot on who is in power. And since we have divided government, it is unlikely that only one solution, or one side's solutions, will be heard. If any legislation, on gun control or anything else, passes, it really will pass through the gauntlet of both parties, and probably involve a mixture of policy ideas.

Or, more likely, nothing significant passes.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

God and Guns

Steve Greene takes issue with claims by Mike Huckabee and others that gun violence is a result, in part, of our society having "turned away from God." Steve takes the time to actually apply some data to the question, noting that the U.S. is one of the more religious nations in the world but nonetheless has one of the highest homicide rates.

Here's another way of looking at the question. In the scatterplot below, I have plotted out the percent of Americans who claim to attend a church, mosque, or synagogue at least weekly with the rates of firearms deaths per 100,000 residents in each U.S. state. What do we find?
The relationship between religiosity and gun deaths is positive. Now, this doesn't mean that religiosity causes violence, and there are a lot of other factors out there that predict gun violence, including poverty, local gun laws, and culture (notice how the upper right quadrant is almost entirely southern states?). But it seems reasonable to conclude that our society's "turning away from God" is not a primary reason for gun deaths.

Policy Windows and Gun Control, PART I

Since the tragic shooting in Newtown, we've heard a lot of policy proposals. We've also heard from people saying we should just slow down and not have a policy discussion while the nation is grieving.

I don't know what the right way to grieve is, but I do know that those saying we should slow down are essentially working to prevent policy change, whether they think they are or not. At least that's what the political science on this suggests. 

A long tradition of scholarship, begun by John Kingdon and continued by Frank Baumgartner, Bryan Jones and others, suggests that the policy process is the result of policy entrepreneurs and other advocates who take advantage of the way events, like a school shooting, change the policy agenda. Groups of policy advocates have been working on a variety of issues all along, even if the rest of us are not paying attention. And then, when some major event or crisis comes along, this creates a policy window, in which something may well be done. Advocates work to make sure what is done is what they would like to have done. 

What is done may not even be the best solution. Indeed, policy advocates may be seen as champion solutions in search of a problem, and when an event like Newtown happens, they bring in their ready made solution. It's not that the proposed solutions are necessarily bad ideas; only that they were not devised for this current crisis. They were devised by their advocates to solve some more general problem, and they are now matched with the current problem, because that is the problem that there is political will to solve. 

So I'll make a strong but ultimately obvious claim. Better gun control wouldn't stop every mass shooting. Probably not even this one. Better mental health care wouldn't either. Neither would arming teachers or prayer in school or more male teachers. But some of those policies may be good ideas anyway. Some would not be.

The time to have the debate about that is now, because now is when attention is focused on the problem. It's not a rational, detached process. It's politics. The best we can do is try to make sure that, if anything is done now, it's something we like. And that means talking about it. Right now.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A political response to gun violence

A common reaction to the tragic events unfolding today in Newtown, Connecticut, is a sense of helplessness. If you've watched this and other mass shootings this year and believe some sort of policy change is necessary, but you've so far only heard politicians ducking the question or saying that now isn't the time to discuss gun control, what can you do? And whatever happened to the politicians who supported gun control?

I don't purport to be an expert on the latter question, but some time over the past three decades Democratic Party leaders simply stopped advocating for gun control. In part, gun control was a casualty of the Democrats' efforts to make their presidential candidates more electable between Walter Mondale's drubbing in 1984 and Bill Clinton's victory in 1992. In part, it represents an overall perception that it was a losing issue for Democratic candidates. Nonetheless, the shift is still somewhat stark and surprising, especially since the Democratic Party, over this same time period, has become less rural and less southern.

If you find this disheartening, what can you do? The easiest answer is political activism. One can still find the occasional politician who supports gun control -- Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced this just yesterday -- but this is almost always seen as an act of political heroism, while opposing gun control is seen as pandering to the National Rifle Association. There's no reason this needs to be the case. It's important to remember that the NRA, as far as I know, has never broken any laws. They simply advocate for their members' interests using very transparent political processes. As George Stephanopoulos famously said:
Let me make one small vote for the NRA. They're good citizens. They call their Congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time.
The NRA does not own the patent on this formula. For those who wish to change the state of American gun ownership laws, the same approach should be used: If you see a politician supporting gun control, give her money. Volunteer on her campaign. Send her a letter thanking her, and then send letters to local newspapers praising her leadership. Make a particular stance on this issue the condition for your support in a primary election, and get your friends to do the same.

There's no (pardon the term) magic bullet on this issue. It's simply a matter of providing incentives to politicians. If supporting gun control is a heroic act, very few of them will do it. If it's an easy way to gin up praise and campaign support, a lot of them will.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Is there a "six-year itch"?

Charlie Cook expects that 2014 will be a tough election for Democrats due to the "six-year itch."
The 2014 vote is what’s known as a “six-year itch” election, with the party holding the White House usually losing a substantial number of House and Senate seats in the sixth year of its tenure. There are a variety of reasons, but at that midway point in a party’s second four years in the White House, the “in” party tends to lose energy and focus. Party leaders run out of ideas, and the “first team” in terms of personnel—the people who were there when the president took office—have often bailed out, and the second or third team is sometimes not as good. Voters tend to grow weary and to look for something different.
I find this causal story very unconvincing. I mean, I suppose you could make the case that the Reagan and Clinton administrations had stopped making aggressive policy moves by their sixth year in office, and maybe that could be classified as a lack of "energy and focus," but the president's party did relatively well in those midterm elections. And the Democrats got mauled in 2010, but it could hardly be said that that was due the Obama administration's lack of energy. (If anything, they were punished for being too energetic and focused.) Perhaps I'm a bit biased in favor of explanations that can actually be measured, but the idea that voters are turning against the president's party due to insufficient energy and focus strikes me as a real stretch.

That said, is the six-year itch a real thing? Cook notes that in the sixth year of a presidential administration, the president's party loses, on average, 29 House seats. That sounds serious, although it should be noted that the president's party loses an average of 22 seats in other midterm elections. So a seven-seat difference isn't nothing, but given only 16 midterm elections since World War II ended, that difference doesn't offer a lot of explanatory power.

Here's a scatterplot showing the relationship between economic growth (measured as the growth in per capita real disposable income from the third quarter in the year prior to the election to the second quarter in the election year) and the seat gains for the president's party. The six-year itch elections are labeled in red:
Four of the six six-year itch elections appear below the trend line, suggesting a modestly negative impact on the vote. Still, it should be noted that the six-year itch elections include 1974 (occurring immediately after Ford's deeply unpopular pardon of Nixon) and 1966 (when the Vietnam War was starting to take its toll on Johnson). These might be considered unusual elections. The six-year itches also include 1998, one of only two postwar midterms in which the president's party gained seats.

A regression analysis using the above economic variable, presidential approval ratings, and a six-year itch dummy variable to predict House seat gains for the president's party shows that the first two variables are positive and statistically significant, while the last one is negative and not significant. That is, statistically speaking, six-year itch elections don't appear to be any worse for the president's party than other midterm elections. 2014 may be a tough year for Democrats, but only because midterm elections are almost always tough years for the president's party.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Finally, a good film about the presidency

I saw "Lincoln" the other night. This is a very good and very rich film -- it contains a great deal of detail, both in the script and on the screen -- and I'd like to see it again soon to look for things I missed the first time around. Much has already been written on the film (I'm particularly enjoying Ta-Nehisi Coates' and Susan Schulten's perspectives, and David Brooks makes some interesting observations), but I wanted to mention a particular point: this is probably the best film on the American presidency ever made.

The premise of the film is that Lincoln has an agenda item (the thirteenth amendment) he wants to push through Congress. He's recently been reelected -- after very publicly supporting emancipation -- and believes he has a mandate to see this agenda through. But he faces numerous obstacles. First, a Confederate peace envoy is offering to cease hostilities if slavery can be retained in some form; news of this will likely erode support for the proposed amendment. Second, his party, while maintaining large majorities in Congress, doesn't command two-thirds of the House, and members of the minority Democrats must be won over if the amendment is to pass. Third, his party is hardly united on the amendment; conservatives think it goes to far, radicals think it doesn't go far enough, and none of them like him forcing this on a lame duck Congress. Fourth, Lincoln's own views on slavery and the war have evolved over his first term, and many in Congress and in his own cabinet distrust him as a result.

These struggles are the essence of the American presidency. And the film nicely portrays both the powers and the limitations of the president. It makes the point that should be so obvious but is so rarely portrayed in political films: the president has no direct power over Congress. He is not a member of it, he cannot author bills, he cannot force Congress to consider a bill, and he cannot (despite what the creators of "The Contender" would have you think) demand a roll call vote. The president runs and is elected on an agenda but is largely dependent on Congress to see it through. The film also notes that the president can't dictate to his party: Preston Blair, one of the founders of the Republican Party, makes far more demands on Lincoln than the other way around, and Lincoln basically begs Thaddeus Stevens and the Radicals for their support. And in terms of the president's legal powers, Lincoln himself is shown wrestling with whether his Emancipation Proclamation was actually constitutional or whether it would have any authority in peacetime. He well knew that he was exploring uncharted and potentially dangerous areas of the law and was unclear about his power to do so.

But the president does have other powers, notably the power to make patronage appointments and control the military. He can influence media coverage but can't control it. And while we do see a few examples of the president attempting to personally persuade some members of Congress, it's not clear how effective that is, and this isn't remotely treated as his most important power. (A lesser film would likely have shown the president using his bully pulpit powers, but that would have been both ahistorical and stupid here.)

I'm open to suggestions here, but I have a hard time coming up with another film about the presidency that gets at these core issues of executive limitations and powers. "The Contender" was a joke in this regard. "All the President's Men" is great but is basically about the media. "The American President" is pretty much a romantic comedy. It does show the president struggling with pushing bills through Congress, but largely resorts to magical bully pulpit powers in the end. "Dave" is lighthearted comedy. "Seven Days in May" addresses some of these issues but almost completely ignores Congress. The one film that handles these issues seriously, I think, is "Advise and Consent," which chronicles a president's difficult nomination of a new secretary of state, although much of that film's focus is on the blackmailing of a particular senator rather than on the president, who disappears for much of the film. "West Wing" actually addresses a number of these issues in a serious way, although scattered across many different television episodes.

So I plan to use "Lincoln" in my film class, and I'm grateful for a film that finally deals with the executive branch in all its glory and shortcomings.

Update: Here's the actual Thirteenth Amendment, featuring an unusual and unnecessary presidential signature. (via William Adler on Twitter)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why don't politicians cross party lines more often?

Mitt Romney joined Barack Obama for an undoubtedly awkward lunch last week. According to a White House statement, "They pledged to stay in touch, particularly if opportunities to work together on shared interests arise in the future." Will they work together on such future opportunities? Not very likely. But has little to do with their personalities and much to do with the way parties function.

For an interesting counter-example, check out Susan Dunn's account of Wendell Wilkie's transformation from Franklin Roosevelt's electoral opponent in 1940 to his advocate a few months later. As Dunn notes, Wilkie ran a spirited campaign against President Roosevelt, accusing him of nothing less than collaboration with Hitler. After losing, however, Wilkie pledged his support, and FDR in turn made Wilkie a personal representative to Britain during the early days of World War II and often showered him with praise for his bipartisan spirit. So why don't more defeated candidates do this sort of thing? Well here's what happened to Wilkie shortly thereafter:
Newspaper columnists and editorial boards showered Willkie with praise, but the Republican “old guard” did not. Instead, it set out to destroy his influence. At the party’s 1944 convention, Willkie was not permitted to address the delegates. He died that October, a lone wolf who had paid a steep price for cooperating with F.D.R.
Parties are highly resistant to their members -- even presidential nominees -- helping people out across party lines, and they can limit the careers and legacies of those who try.