Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Elsewhere: Liberal Democrats, Rational Voters? Oh My!

Let's see...over at Post Partisan today, more follow-up on discussion stemming from the new Mann and Ornstein stuff. This time, from liberals who object to their claim that the Democratic Party has become more liberal over the last couple of decades. Sorry, liberals, but it's true.

At Greg's place, I tried to connect some dots between new findings by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck about presidential approval ratings and the Bartels presidential election forecast model, which plugs in an inverse relationship between Year 1 economic growth and re-election results. It's speculative, and I hope I conveyed that properly in the post...I'm also interested to see if any of the political scientists involved (or others with expertise in this area) have any response...in other words, I'm not all that confident that I have something worthwhile here, although I'm happy to direct some attention to what John and Lynn did, which looks like fine work to me.

13 comments:

  1. I think you and your critics are talking past each other on the extent dem party has become more liberal. Its hard to square your logic with the fact that a GOP/Heritage model of health care reform was threatened with filibusters and substantially further watered down by conservative dem senators. If the party is more liberal, why was the senate caucus negoitating with itself over how to water down further a GOP/Heritage model of HCR? Furthermore, cap and trade, another GOP innovation, was killed in 2009-2010 due in no small part to objections by conservative dems.

    Allow me to try to bridge the gap. I think what's happening is that, yes, there's less conservative dems in the Senate today than there were in the late 80s, early 90s. So you're right on that. But, as our political institutions (senate rules, campaign finance, etc) have become more conservative in the past 20 years, the incentives for conservative dems to defect (ie, be disloyal and cause problems for their President and congressional leadership) have increased. In other words, conservative dems are rarer these days, but they are more powerful and more difficult for our leaders to control. Both sides are right, but I think JB is being nitpicky here since the consequences of present day conservative dems essentially yielding disproportionate power is of much more significance than the fact that Fritz Hollings would be an anachronism in today's democratic party.

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  2. Although the Democratic caucus in the House and Senate are probably further to the left than in the past, I think that liberals would in many respects (particularly on economics issues) argue that the overall thrust of policy sponsored by Democrats is more characteristic of Richard Nixon's policies than LBJ's.

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  3. I do think Mann and Ornstein are on to something, although I don't think its as big as moving from the 40 to the 25 yard lines. Liberals that say Obama is some sort of moderate or compare him to Nixon tend to cherry pick their examples (what exactly were Nixon's stance on gays in the military or on regulating Wall Street more guys?) while ignoring other examples that disprove their argument. And how is secretly and illegally invading Cambodia and dragging the War in Vietnam out for four years to win reelection comparable to say Bobby Kennedy's stance on Vietnam or Obama's on dealing with Iraq? Speaking of Nixon though, much of what appears to be Nixon's "moderation" now was really his campaign rhetoric to appeal to moderate voters not the policy he pursued. For example, Nixon vowed to uphold civil rights legislation and enforce desegregation court orders while campaigning and in press conferences but forced a young Department of Justice staffer named Leon Pannetta to resign after Leon said in public that Nixon would do those things (little did Leon know Nixon had no intention of fighting for Civil Rights indeed he had to promise not to do that to southern delegates to win the nomination in 1968.) Imposing wage and price controls was probably as much as Nixon grasping for something to appear to be in control and, temporarily, stabilize the economy for his re-election as anything else. This list of these sorts of things goes on and on.

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    1. Yeah, I agree with longwalk about Nixon. It points out a problem with this kind of analysis; it's very hard to know what the ideal point of any politician is because their public positions are all embedded into a particular political context -- and it's hard to know how to balance out the underlying goal (which seems important) from the public stance and actions (which also seem important).

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  4. Isn't this debate almost wholly an artifact of the insistence on understanding "liberal" or "conservative" in one dimensional terms? Or does it actually make sense to have some subjective debate about whether something like economic policy is more essential to the definition of liberalism than is cultural/social policy or foreign policy, etc.?

    I also don't quite understand how DW-nominate scores work, for what that's worth.

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  5. How much of the drift liberal-ward of the Democratic caucus is simply the result of the Southern caucus in Congress bleeding Democrats? Replacing Fritz Hollings with Lindsay Graham in the Senate moves the Democratic caucus left, and Congress right.

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  6. DW NOMINATE is a statistical method for estimating legislator's ideal points.

    Say, for example, you have a vote that goes 290-145. You know who won and who lost, but you don't know WHY they voted the way they did. Maybe some of those 145 thought the underlying bill spent too much, and others thought it helped too many black people, and others thought it didn't spend enough on fluffy bunnies. OK. So, what the procedure does is take all the yes and no votes cast on every bill ever and find the commonalities. These guys consistently vote with these guys on these bills, but not on those bills, where they tend to side with group #3. The technique is, essentially, something called factor analysis. So, the method can determine how much of the variation in votes can be explained by one dimension or another. It also gives you estimates of the ideal points of every legislator ever to vote on those dimensions.

    Now, to make over-time comparisons, it leverages the fact that legislative careers overlap. Also, when run separately on every Congress, the estimates for individual congressmen don't change very much at all. So, if Henry Waxman votes such and such, and we know him to be pretty liberal, then a new member who votes like Waxman must be just as liberal.

    Now, this seems like it would work, and should quell our impressions. But we have sense like those expressed above. I share those. I just wish I had the math skills to directly challenge the method. But, when political scientists say things like Mann & Ornstein did, they're basing it off this method, and usually talking about the average, which is subject to the phenomenon Jon and others in this thread have noted: you can move the average by removing conservatives from the Democratic Party.

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    1. Thanks for the explanation, Matt!

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  7. I agree that Democrats have become more liberal, but their policy-making hasn't exactly followed suit. What about social issues? Aside from certain lifestyle issues, Democrats haven't deviated much from Bush's record on civil liberties. Even foreign policy is pretty much on autopilot.

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    1. On the question of foreign policy, I would say that what made Bush distinctive was the unilateral interventionism of the early years, not the flailing about trying to get out of the messes that the administration created. If Obama has continued Bush's foreign policy, it's the flailing-about-trying-to-get-out-of-the-mess part, trying to balance the desire to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan with the desire not to see the locals who have helped us lined up against a wall and shot as we leave.

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    2. Scott, I'd agree that Obama is closer to Bush's second term than his first. That's my point, he's acting like a continuation of Bush, a third term...

      Do you really think our collaborators will be safe when we finally leave? Instead of continuing our "flailing-about" why don't we just leave now and take the collaborators with us? Do you really think Obama has been a noninterventionist? What about Libya? I think it's fair to say that Democrats have not acted very liberal on foreign policy or domestic crime/civil liberties issues.

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  8. Fair enough. I'll just say that it's difficult to walk away from a war. That's one reason why you shouldn't walk into them too lightly. It does happen on occasion--e.g., Lebanon, 1982; Somalia, 1993--but it's difficult. Those two cases may have been different because (1) catastrophe came early, perhaps before we felt truly committed, (2) we didn't start the wars, and probably most importantly,(3) we really didn't know why or how we got into the situation (both were short-term humanitarian ventures that weren't expected to involve fighting). But wars are a messy, ugly piece of business, and their consequences don't go away just because you tire of them.

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  9. Scott, I agree. But I don't think we can limit the damage of our involvement by continuing it. And of course many of the issues in Afghanistan are not of our own making (they were already fighting when we got there) -- the Afghans will ultimately solve them in their own way and I'm afraid there isn't much we can do to stop that, short of staying indefinitely.

    There was never really a need for massive US ground forces in Afghanistan. Remember, we only had a couple of hundred boots on the ground when the Taliban fled Kabul. What some people call "The Good War," I like to call "The Unnecessary War."

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