Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Smart But Mistaken Case Against A Healthy Party

This may be a little unfair, but I'm going to react in advance to a three-part series by Sean Trende about party makeovers. Despite that he's only published part one.

Trende proposes to answer seven questions about elections:
1) What if elections are simply random?
2) What if it really is just the economy, stupid?
3) What if Republicans actually aren’t that out of step ideologically?
4) What if party makeovers don’t work?
5) What if the American people just automatically self-correct?
6) What if this period of introspection is just what out-of-power parties do?
7) What if it makes no sense for a party to think more than 10 years out?
Part one, today, answers questions one and two. It's okay, I suppose, although there's a more straightforward way of making the point he's trying to make. Rather than asking his first two questions, what I think he really wants to say is that presidential elections from at least the 1970s on, and probably well before that, are best thought of contested between two basically evenly matched parties with results mostly dictated by "fundamentals" such as the economy, presidential popularity, and other pre-campaign objective factors. I mean, it's true (as Trende says answering his first question) that election results could easily just be random variation, but in fact we know very well (as he points out when turning to the second one) that election results are not random at all.

At any rate, Trende's main point as I understand it so far is that the underlying fundamentals of an election year, and not the current health of the parties, is the main driver of election results -- and in that, he's exactly right:
So maybe all of this talk about party rebranding and the success of the Democratic Leadership Council running to the center may be irrelevant, or at least mostly irrelevant. It’s pretty clear to me that if Bill Clinton had run in 1984, he would have lost in a landslide -- probably not as big of a landslide as Walter Mondale, but still a landslide. If he’d run in 1988, he probably would have lost, although the election might have been close. We’d probably then conclude that DLC centrism was a ticket to oblivion, and celebrated the revival of New Deal liberalism when Tom Harkin defeated Bush in 1992.
And yet...

The next question, and one that Trende's seven questions doesn't get at, is whether the "fundamentals" are fixed -- or if they can be powerfully affected by the health (or lack thereof) of a party.

The party in office, that is. I'm with him about the party out of office; they have to be in extremely bad shape to lose their opportunities to cash in on in-party difficulties. It can happen...that's Goldwater and McGovern (both of whom turned solid defeats into even worse landslides).

But in office...a dysfunctional party in office can strongly affect, if not actually determine, the fundamentals of subsequent elections. That is, we can think of the failures of both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush as party failures, not personal failures of an incompetent president (or as random fluctuations of the economy and foreign policy which would have happened to any president of either party during those years).

My own view? The DLC and other 1980s efforts to reform the Democrats were largely irrelevant. The big problem for the Democrats had been earlier, with the crackup of the party over race and Vietnam after 1964 (with roots going back decades, to be sure). By the time Walter Mondale beat Gary Hart in 1984, all that was mostly ancient history, and the Democrats after 1982 were probably as ready to govern as they were in 1992. They just didn't have much chance, thanks to election-year fundamentals -- but to the extent they did, in the House after 1982 and the Senate after 1986, they were fine.

Nor is it clear what, if anything, could have prevented Democratic problems in the aftermath of Vietnam and the slow-motion realignment of Southern Anglo voters (with the latter surely something that virtually all of today's mainstream liberals believing was a worthwhile tradeoff for the gains in justice from civil rights). The particular disaster they got (an ill-formed nomination process and terrible nominees in 1972 and 1976, and especially the particular awful nominee that popped up in 1976) were probably somewhat random and perhaps avoidable, but the problem in the party was real.

The current Republican dysfunction has been building for years, but if you want a marker on it a good one is the House GOP revolt against George H.W. Bush's budget deal in 1990. Since then, Republican dysfunction hasn't affected elections when they were the out-party (especially in 1994 and 2010), but it's probably made them less capable of governing, which caused problems for them at the ballot box in 1996, 1998, 2006, and 2008. And, I'd say, 2004: a more successful George W. Bush first term might easily have produced a Nixon/Reagan type reelection.

Now, you have to make an argument here that Bush was an awful president (and that the Newt-era and Boehner-era Houses were dysfunctional) as a systematic consequence of Republican Party dysfunction. As regular readers know, I think that's a very big part of the truth (see, for example, my recent Salon column about the party of Newt and Nixon). Which then gets to the question of what can anyone do about it if the Republican Party is dysfunctional in ways that make it less likely to govern successfully...and I'm not sure what the answer to that one is.

Basically, however, the critique here of what Trende is (as far as I can tell) up to is that treating the fundamentals as external to the (governing) party's health is a real mistake. It's not a full causal connection, of course; recessions and recoveries, and war and peace, and natural disasters, and all the other things that can be part of those "fundamentals" are not pure functions of the health of the incumbent party. But healthy parties, and the good politicians they elect, are in a much better situation to capitalize on the good things and avoid the bad ones.

All of which means that the Republican Party would be smart to get its act together -- not so that they can win office, but so that they can get more out of it and have it last longer when they do win. 


  1. One big problem for Republicans is that, so far as I can tell, many of them are opposed on principle to governing. If, for example, you don't believe that government has a significant, legitimate role in health care, you're not going to propose 'serious' alternatives to Obamacare. (Whipping up the old folks over Medicare is good old cynicism, unrelated to principles.)

    A striking example of the modern Republican rejection of governing is the decline and fall of the GOP's foreign policy realist wing. On foreign policy the party is now divided between a Manichean wing and a Paulite wing.

    1. If, for example, you don't believe that government has a significant, legitimate role in health care, you're not going to propose 'serious' alternatives to Obamacare. (Whipping up the old folks over Medicare is good old cynicism, unrelated to principles.)

      Q)How can a party be mostly for Medicare for seniors, tax-subsidized employer purchased health-payment plans, and S-CHIP, but also believe that gov has no significant, legitimate role in health care?

      A)Progs view anything other than first dollar single-payer for all medical care as insufficient centralization. Because gov planning works better than markets.

    2. I think part of what Jonathan is saying is that:

      1. the priorities of the party determine what it does once it is in power

      2. what it does when it gets in power has an effect on what the economy does

      3. what it does when it gets in power determines other important questions, like how we deal with international crises and such

      4. Thus, if people think the outcome is to their benefit, they will continue to vote for the party, at least in part.

      I think it's certainly clear that the White South has not forgiven the Democrats for the Civil Rights Act, even half a century later. As they joined with the Republicans, and slowly twisted the party's tenets more in line with their own, the GOP has lost much of the rest of the country, cities especially.

      My point is that the Old South had lots of poor whites, and a few very wealthy people who could buy and sell everyone else. This is what the current conservative vision dreams of for the rest of the country.

      So in that sense, it isn't dysfunctional.

    3. Different Anon here.

      But what if Dems lost the poor whites in the South not just because of the identity politics (the racism thing) but because the Dem economic policies began to reflect the policy prefernces of people in urban areas more than people in rural areas? Maybe that process was kickstarted by the VRA and the Dixiecrat meltdown, but became a self-sustaining process as Dems gave up on trying to bring rural whites back.

      Then the Republicans ended up with a coalition that is made up of the deserted rural whites, the suburban whites who view urbanities as an economic rival, and wealthy people... basically a coalition that has no unifying policy goals.

      Thus the "post-policy" phenomenon.

    4. Anon, if Dems had abandoned rural people's economic needs that should be easy to observe directly, and I don't think it's happened. All the major safety net items Democrats have pushed for benefit rural dwellers as much as urban ones, and there are a lot of rural folks using Medicaid, food stamps, child tax credits, etc. Agricultural product subsidies and direct aid to farmers remain high. And there's still a substantial contingent of Democratic senators from rural states pushing for rural interests. They added in ethanol subsidies in recent decades. Rural areas also get more than their share of pork projects and more porkishly allocated worthwhile projects. I'd actually argue that both Dems and Reps overweight rural interests, though the Reps may do it more.

    5. Yeah, good point (same Anon here).

      I guess my response is to 1) point at the "Good Society" policy platform from the 1960's. Rural southern whites were already very well trained to view non-whites as economic rivals (see: Slavery), so may have learned to view the national Dem party as prioritizing a different coalition.

      Especially as Dems focused on the northern Labor Unions as an important part of their coalition, Southern whites saw less and less benefit of supporting the national party. Of course, the national GOP won the South in the late 60's and continues to do so today, but it took decades for the local Democrat coalitions to switch over to the GOP.

      I agree that the Dems attempt to compete for rural voters, but that the GOP has done a better job of keeping those voters in their coalition.

    6. First Anon here. Rural southern whites are strongly anti-union. They tend to rely on family connections and reputations (willingness to work) to obtain labor-oriented jobs. They also culturally favor the idea of on-the-job training as opposed to education.

      So even if Democrats enact policies that help rural southern whites, their cultural proclivities reject labor unions as a solution to poverty.

  2. Does it do much violence to your argument to rework this sentence: "Now, you have to make an argument here that Bush was an awful president (and that the Newt-era and Boehner-era Houses were dysfunctional) as a systematic consequence of Republican Party dysfunction."?

    What I'd like to get your thoughts on is playing with the parenthetical, and its order in the causal chain. For the dysfunction to have caused the Newt House, it would have had to have been present already. What if Newt (and his allies, and I think you have to toss Ailes into this dicussion) caused the dysfunction to take root?

    I think it's more than just sophistry. Untangling the causal root of the GOP dysfunction is important. You're mostly (here) positing it as exogenous, but I'm not sure that it is.....

    1. Hmmm....excellent topic.

      I do think that Newt was a big cause of the Newt-era dysfunction. But it's complicated, right? There's the long history of conservative paranoia (if that's the right word) about liberal governments...we know the history of anti-FDR and anti-JFK extremism. There's the internal House story, which has to do with the way that the post-1958 reforms tended to shut out the minority party from any meaningful governing role. There's Newt's reaction to all that, some of which surely seems to be a historical wild card. There's the growth of the GOP-aligned press and the growth of the conservative marketplace. There's the particular legacy of Reagan...it really does get complicated, doesn't it?

    2. It seems to me that a lot of what is happening is that the coalition in the Republican Party has a difficult time coalescing around a policy platform, because the economic interests of the different members of that coalition conflict. That's my take on the bizarre "Libertarian Populism" conversation that the blogoverse is currently enjoying. Liberals and moderates look at the Paul Ryan plan bewildered, and liberals especially figure that it's a scam put together by Koch Brother types. But what if it's actually an honest attempt by the party to coalesce around a platform? The problem, maybe, is that the economic policies that would be preferred by the wealthy would not, in practice, be favored by the non-wealthy Republican voters. Conversely, the economic policies that would benefit non-wealthy Republican voters are not preferred by the wealthy Republican voters. So there's this intense tension. When the party goes to create a policy platform (as all parties must), there's this constant struggle to "square a circle" and create policy that a majority of the Republican coalition can support (or at least go along with). So the party leaders have to keep everything very vague... when they go to far (and they may have with the Paul Ryan budget), they risk the coalition (polls are beginning to suggest that elderly voters are softening on the GOP).
      But politics seems to only be 70 or 80 percent economics. The GOP can rely heavily on identity politics and "hereditary" voters (as does the Dem party) in order to drive their voters. The more vague the GOP's policy positions get, the more intense the identity politics becomes. Not because party leaders decided that it had to be that way... but rather the folks in the party all collectively begin pushing identity politics as they are confronted with policy questions that can be answered. Rush Limbaugh and birthers and so on are a reaction to the underlying issue that the current coalition making up the GOP can't agree on an actual economic policy platform.
      That's my theory anyways.

    3. "but rather the folks in the party all collectively begin pushing identity politics as they are confronted with policy questions that can be answered."

      I re-read this and realized that it should read "policy questions that CAN'T be answered"

  3. I think the previous commenters are mostly correct about the disparate forces held together uneasily in the Republican tent; my add is the tie that binds them.

    First, background: Drudge had a link up yesterday to Bono coming to the religion of entrepreneurship as significantly preferable to government in helping bring people out of poverty. Drudge's linked article talked about CS Lewis sharing Bono's view; there are of course many other Decent People who came to the same conclusion. I'm not sure if Bono would self-identify as a liberal or conservative; his belief in entrepreneurship as the solution to social ills would certainly merit him a place in the Republican tent, if he were so inclined.

    And there are also seething xenophobes who want to return to defacto apartheid America that have a place in that tent. What would a seething xenophobe and Bono have in common?

    Not much, beyond the fact that neither particularly trusts the government to address their (disparate) concerns. Which is interesting, cause liberals are often lamenting why right-wing discourse is so focused on how much they distrust the government...

    ...what else they gonna talk about?

    1. I agree. But I also think that it's not enough (and, when it comes to Bono, it's not anything :).

      It's all about a coalition of different groups, who all stand to gain (or who think they stand to gain) economically from the political party's policy platform. The GOP in '10 gained heavily among elderly voters, who felt that the Obamacare changes imperiled Medicare (a vital part of an elderly citizen's economic status). There may also have been some elements of race-based politics in the swing of elderly voters... many older citizens came of age when the idea of non-whites being natural economic rivals to whites was accepted as fact.
      In any case, the elderly vote swung to the GOP and remained there to some degree in '12 because that group of voters saw the Dems as prioritizing a different political group's economic status over their own. For that reason, I am very interested in recent polling showing a softening in elderly voter support for the GOP.

    2. Elderly people have children in their forties and fifties, many of whom need health insurance. Most people who survive without health insurance are supported by a family, so each of the 30 million who will get health insurance through Obamacare have some number, say 1-5 other people, who care about them.

      When this comes home, Republicans will have heck to pay.

  4. Trende simply seems to be making the usual point that the ideological position of a candidate (except maybe in 1964 and 1972) probably affects only a relatively small percentage of the vote. True, but a relatively small percentage can decide a fairly close election, and a party cannot prudently assume that economic and other conditions in the next election will be such as to enable it to win by so much that public perception of its candidate's idology doesn't matter. After all, there has not been a true presidential landslide since 1984 if you define a landslide as a ten point victory. (Contrast that with earlier in the post-WW2 era, when there were landslides in 1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, and 1984; also in 1980 if you round up Reagan's 9.7 margin to ten points.)

    One should also note that even if ideology only affects the *margin* of a presidential candidate's victory, this will probably affect some close congressional races, which in 2016 could mean control of at least the Senate (and maybe even the House, though this is less likely).

  5. The problem this post points to, I think, is that there are two kinds of "fundamentals," and political scientists' current terminology doesn't capture this very elegantly. There are "Fundamentals I," the economic indices and approval ratings and so on that drive election outcomes. This is what the term usually refers to. Then there are "Fundamentals II," which are facts about the polity -- and reality -- that make some policy directions plausible and effective, and others nonsensical or incoherent. Fundamentals II would include things like whether the public has a well-established preference for welfare-state policies, i.e. whether it's come to expect the government to perform certain functions. F-II might also include the cuontry's basic demographics, although some of these factors leak over into F-I.

    Restating the issue in those terms, Republicans have no trouble aligning themselves with and capitalizing on Fundamentals I, since this is basically just a matter of waiting for the economic winds to blow your way. But they have no coherent position on Fundamentals II and in some respects have put themselves crossways with these, for instance by proposing radical changes to Medicare that the public would never accept and by ignoring the concerns of minority groups who can no longer be safely ignored. These flaws show up when they try to govern, making them unpopular, which then becomes one of the Fundamentals I, causing them to lose elections.

    (Note that if this terminology were accepted, it would probably make more sense to reverse the numbers, because the more fundamental Fundamentals are the ones I'm calling "II" here. But maybe there's a different word for those besides "fundamentals" that would work to keep the distinction clear.)

  6. Hey Jonathan,

    Sean here. Just wanted to make a few points -- not sure entirely how much we actually disagree here, but here goes:

    1) I structured it the way I did for a reason: I actually do believe that elections are more-or-less functionally random, meaning that they resemble random chance because the parties have very little control over big structural events like the economy or even wars. I analyze elections pretty exclusively because my views on policy basically adhere to the "Theodoric of York" rule. Don't know if you remember the old SNL sketch where Steve Martin's character plays a medieval barber who bragged about how we used to think that illness was due to sorcery, but now understand that it’s an imbalance of bodily humors brought about by a toad or dwarf living in the stomach. I just don’t think we know that much in the big picture. Certainly reading the Board of Governors and FOMC minutes (as I did as a research assistant for a history of the Fed in a former life), one is struck by the fact that very smart people in the late 1920s and 1937 wholeheartedly believed they were following the correct policy prescriptions. Suspect scholars 100 years from now will likewise laugh at us today. This doesn’t make for particularly compelling policy writing, since I don't really care that much what policies we undertake. Call me a policy nihilist (insert Big Lebowski joke here).

    2) I don’t really want to re-litigate Bush’s legacy, because there’s a lot I didn’t like, especially Iraq. But if you want to look at the big failures of the Bush Administration—Iraq, the financial collapse, Katrina, I’m pretty certain that things would have played out roughly the same had 70,000 Ohio voters changed their minds in 2004. New Orleans still would have flooded, AIG still would have collapsed, and the Golden Dome Mosque would still have been bombed. In fact, I’m pretty sure Katrina and the financial collapse would have played out roughly the same had Gore been elected. There was no huge Democratic push to re-regulate credit default swaps or puncture the housing bubble early (quite the opposite on the latter point), nor was FEMA reform a major campaign item in 2000 or 2004 (you can probably find some mention of these issues somewhere in a speech, but I’m pretty confident they weren’t high enough priority items to get turned into a law). These really were black swans, and while different approaches might have made changes worth maybe a point or two in the popular vote either way, I think whoever won the presidency in 2004 was basically screwed in 2008 regardless. Probably the same is true of whoever won in 2000.

    3) Did Bush really have a chance to win a Reagan-like victory in 2004? Possibly, although he was only put in that position by a more-or-less random event, which incidentally probably also saved Republicans from a 2006-style blowout in 2002. Even then, I’m not certain he could have managed more than 54/55 percent of the vote had we not invaded Iraq, and that only by running hard to the center (although, his domestic program, taken as a whole, was already reasonably centrist). You might say his failure to do so is proof that the Republican base demands their presidents undertake acts that are electorally harmful, and I'll agree, but that’s a bipartisan affair; see our discussion of the Obamacare/economy tradeoff of 2009 (as you said, giving up the chance to do healthcare would have cost Obama with his base, even if it might have bolstered the party’s electoral fortunes).

    4) In that vein, it’s worth at least noting that the past three incidents of uniform Democratic rule have been ended rather abruptly, and in the last two instances, in elections that *didn’t* really follow the fundamentals.

    5) Regardless, I don’t think the fundamentals are wholly exogenous to governing. I’m just reasonably confident that they are mostly exogenous, enough so that they fit into my "+/- 3 to 4 percent" from the fundamentals caveat.

  7. Hey Sean,

    I'll agree that Bush's response to Katrina was a huge failure costing thousands of lives, and that Katrina would have hit NOLA no matter which party was in the White House. But FEMA's response to Rita the same year belies your contention that it was structurally incapable of an adequate response. Bush had no interest in saving lives in the 9th Ward. He had an interest in saving lives in Texas. That was what made the difference.

    However, the Katrina response had little effect on white voters, and probably did not push a lot of black voters away either (they had already left the Republican party). So it's not as relevant as other factors.

  8. Thank you for the article, very informative.


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