Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why Do Presidents Do Anything, Anyway, If Voters Don't Care?

This is a follow-up to something I wrote yesterday about presidents and foreign policy successes, and in particular to some great comments that I recommend to everyone.  After political scientists Richard Skinner and Matt Jarvis added to the point I made that foreign policy achievements don't really help presidents get re-elected, commenter Colby said:
Seems like a good, general rule is that outside of the economy, your policy initiatives are only marginal help if they work, and a giant albatross if they don't. Remember what Homer Simpsons said: trying is the first step toward failure. 
I think that's mostly correct.  Think about health care reform.  Had the bill crashed and burned, the general consensus (with which I agreed) was that Obama and the Democrats would suffer from the reputation of being unable to govern.  Once the bill passed, Obama and the Democrats were at risk of being held responsible for anything that goes wrong in the broad field of health care, whether or not the ACA was responsible.  Indeed, I'm surprised at how little of this has been done so far this summer; Republicans as far as I've seen have mostly continued to fight the same battles they've fought all along, instead of blaming Democrats for every doctor shortage, insurance premium increase, and nasty hangnail, which is what I expected them to do.  Be sure, however, that if health care reform winds up not working that it will hurt Obama and the Democrats.  And if ACA works?  Democrats won't get much credit at the ballot box, not this year, not in 2012, not in 2016 when it's fully implemented.  The debate will move on to how to improve it, and everyone (including voters) will treat the exchanges and the rest of it as just part of the normal furniture, not as a reason to switch one's vote.  Of course, if a policy really works well, then whatever the problem it addressed drops right off the radar screen. 

This brings me to a question: if policy innovation entails major risks for presidents and few electoral rewards, why do they bother?  Why not just restrict yourself to talking about what a great idea school uniforms are, and call it a day?

Of course, they may do it because they believe it's the right thing to do; because they care about their place in history; or because they haven't read the political science literature (and blogs) and mistakenly believe that there are re-election advantages to policy accomplishments.  I don't fully discount those things, but let's just say I'm not convinced that they fully explain the level of presidential involvement in policy initiatives.  So, why do they do it?

One reason, and perhaps the most important one on yesterday's topic of foreign policy and national security, is to avoid policy disasters.  No, Barack Obama will not win any votes if he manages to "win" in Afghanistan, whatever that actually means.  But he'll lose plenty of votes if Americans continue to die there in ever-increasing numbers.  He'll also lose votes if Americans leave, the Taliban takes over and shelters bin Laden, and that allows more devastating terror attacks (followed by another invasion, followed by more US casualties).  Turning closer to far as I know, the administration did an absolutely terrific job of responding to the swine flu last year (although Obama's response to the Fried Chicken Flu left a lot to be desired).  So, who is voting for the Democrats this year or generally supporting Obama because he or she didn't die horribly in the prevented horrible pandemic of 2009-2010?  Well, nobody; no one even remembers last year's flu scare, (perhaps) because successful government action turned it into a non-story.  But if things had gone wrong, people would have blamed Obama and, beyond that, people would have been more unhappy about everything, which tends to hurt incumbents.

Beyond avoiding disasters, however, I think the big answer here is about representation.  If we think of representation as a process, it involves politicians who campaign by making promises, certainly including policy promises.  If you've never done it, I recommend going through PolitiFact's database of the over 500 specific policy promises that Barack Obama made while campaigning in 2007 and 2008.  Campaigning requires making promises...perhaps the better way to say it is that campaigning is making promises.  Not all promises are policy; as I've talked about before, sometimes politicians promise explicitly or implicitly to act in certain ways, to look out for allied groups; a pol can even promise to be a specific person, which implies all sorts of behaviors.

The need for policy promises, however, is particularly strong in high-profile nomination contests, in which candidates compete for the support of party-aligned groups and even individual voters by making policy commitments.  To run for president as a Democrat in 2008 and have any chance of winning, a candidate needed to pledge to attempt health care reform.  A candidate needed have a plan to fight climate change.  A candidate needed to support card check and other issues that unions cared about.  A candidate needed to oppose the war in Iraq and pledge to end American involvement there.  We talk a lot about how issues don't really matter much in elections, but usually we're talking about general elections, when party voting dominates.  That's not the case in primaries, where voters -- without the help of party cues -- rely on things such as issues, and endorsements by organizations and pols who care about issues.

Once those politicians are elected, then, they tend to keep their promises.  Partially that's just because they've already set things in motion to keep those promises (for example by hiring staff dedicated to doing so).  Partially it's because pols fear being branded as flip-floppers.  Partially because they don't want to create enemies, and allies scorned can be powerful enemies.  And, related to that, partially because they want to be renominated -- and they want to be renominated by acclamation, without going through the kinds of struggles that Jimmy Carter had in 1980 (when Ted Kennedy almost defeated him for the nomination) or even the annoying problems George H.W. Bush had in 1992 (when Pat Buchanan forced Bush to actively campaign).

Of course, sometimes they do flip, usually because the costs of following through turn out to be higher than the costs of flipping.  And, of course, a lot of times presidents don't actually get done what they promised to get done because they don't have the votes (such as climate change), or because they've promised something that they don't have the capacity of delivering (such as peace between Israel and the Palestinians), or because they've traded it for something else they've promised (such as Obama's broken promise on drug re-importation, which bought him votes of marginal Dems for the overall ACA).  Moreover, there are various degrees of keeping promises...while I don't think he's broken a promise on DADT, Obama has put a whole lot more effort into, say, health care reform than he has into DADT repeal.  And it's sometimes really difficult for outsiders to tell which things are which: have Obama's actions on Gitmo been a flip?  Relative indifference?  Genuine attempt met with failure?  Part of an ongoing fight that may still lead to fulfilling a promise?

The main point, however, is that for presidents, keeping promises involves policy activism.   That's the main reason they do it.  It isn't really to give them something to run on in the next campaign (pols can always find something to run on, regardless of whether they have any real accomplishments or not), and so discovering that general election voters don't care about foreign policy in most cases, for example, should not lead us to believe that presidents shouldn't or won't care about foreign policy.  Presidents get nominated by making promises, and once in office they're more or less trapped into trying to keep them.

[Cross-posted at Citizen Cohn]


  1. I'm surprised and proud that my sarcastic comment lead to such an interesting and insightful post. I'm considering this a policy victory and expecting a significantly higher share of the vote total because of it.

    (Also, as soon as I started reading this post, my first thought was, "What about primaries?". So thanks, Jonathan, for making me feel smart twice.)

  2. I'd also add- on a distinctly non-empirical note- why run for President if you don't want to do anything? Most of the guys who can make themselves President can already get nice limos, private jets, and huge offices. I guess everyone having to stand up when you walk into a room is nice, but is that worth a two year campaign and 4-8 years in the fishbowl?

  3. I find the military aspect of this post disturbing. When the US invaded Iraq, using Rummy's "light footprint", many (notably Powell) questioned whether such a small number of boots on the ground would quell sectarian violence in Iraq. Light footprint = few troops = few coffins, as reflected in Iraq having less than 10% the fatalities of Korea or Vietnam (but many grievously wounded).

    Light footprint has also coincided with the virtually complete ethnic cleansing of many/most formerly multiethnic Baghdad neighborhoods. So there's that.

    In addition to the low number of fatalities with low troop levels, there's also the implications of an all-volunteer army, meaning that many official (or de facto) national leaders have not shared the pain of serving, nor do they know many who have. These two factors, the light footprint and the volunteer army, together with the spectacular effect of US ordnance, makes war an increasingly fascinating movie for a large number of Americans with means.

    Which, by the logic of this post, is not only good entertainment, but its apparently also good politics. One recalls that cringeworthy Meet the Press interview Dubya gave in 2004, when Russert lobbed that softball about whether Iraq was a war of choice or necessity, and Bush stared at him, dumbfounded, for a seeming eternity.

    In the context of this post, one can imagine that the President was thinking: "War of necessity or choice? What kind of stupid question is that? Iraq is obviously a war of shrewd political calculation!"

    I totally digressed though. I started by saying that this was all really disturbing to me. That's because the backdrop of this discussion of political machination is, you know, war.

  4. CSH,

    Well, one of the implications is that presidents should avoid fighting optional wars on the cheap if it risks losing them. Which should make wars a less attractive option (just in terms of electoral calculations) than they appeared to be to either Bush.

  5. presidents should avoid fighting optional wars on the cheap if it risks losing them

    In the initial post you noted that a re-emergence of the Taliban, together with a revival of Al Qaeda in the mountains, and more catastrophic terrorist attacks, will result in "losing". That perfect storm is pretty unlikely; its hard to imagine Obama or any other President 'losing' Afghanistan (or Iraq) in such a spectacular manner.

    Light footprint was enough to make it to "Mission Accomplished", the deposing and eventual execution of the evil Saddam. Light footprint also forced the even more militarily hideous Taliban a bit further into the AfPak mountains - something of a win too.

    After accomplishing those missions, everything is vague, indeterminate goals, perhaps with an emphasis on avoiding catastrophic scenarios described in the open of this thread.

    Which, if I am understanding correctly, suggests that light footprint is a reasonable strategy: enough to topple the militarily feeble Saddam, have the ol' photo op on the ship, and then leave the nightmare of trying to keep the catastrophic scenario at bay to your successors.

    Its not terribly illogical - IMHO if Bush 43 had been more seasoned or active in maintaining his image outside the echo chamber, he might have gotten substantial credit for his 'win' in his dad did, actually, (until the whole economy stupid thing in the '92 election).

  6. But see Richard Skinner's comment on the previous post; after a healthy but short rally effect, even a pure "win" such as GHW Bush's in Iraq (or Harry Truman's in Japan) doesn't seem to help the president. I assume the same was true for Churchill, too. It's possible that you can get away with a "light footprint" phony victory and have no one notice the disaster you made, but you're taking quite a risk for what appears to be a very minimal gain.

  7. Jonathan,

    First of all, wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog. The civility and intelligence of the commentary here is rare for the blogosphere but really quite enjoyable. It makes being a "politics dilettante" oh. so. fun.

    Having self-identified as a dilettante, there are a few things I don't understand about Skinner's comment. First, Truman: unless I am mistaken (and Thomas Dewey really beat Truman?) Truman actually won the Presidential election after V-J day. Its true that Truman lost a subsequent election, seven years after the end of WWII, but...

    ...that next election came on the heels of a lingering nightmare on the Korean peninsula, less than 2 years after a million Chinese regulars just about pushed the mighty American military into the South China Sea (plus McArthur, etc). IOW, if there are positive externalities from the win in WWII, those must be outweighed by the negatives from the more recent disaster in Korea by the time of Truman's ill-fated 1952 re-election campaign.

    Re: GHW Bush, perhaps the issue was that, frankly, most Americans just weren't that enthralled with the notion that Kuwaitis were free again, since, prior to August 2, 1990, the vast majority of Americans had never spared a moment's thought regarding whether Kuwaitis were free or not.

    Perhaps it would be helpful (maybe some already do) to think of these factors (economy, war, foreign policy blunders) as independent variables that impact an election, which has one dependent variable: who gets the majority of EV on election day.

    Economic factors are doubtlessly hugely influential independent variables, perhaps they are even the most important ones. But they nevertheless aren't dependent variables, which can be easily demonstrated by a thought experiment where a candidate has every other factor hugely negative but favorable economic tides - I think we agree that said candidate would probably still lose.

    So for Truman, the fact that the Chinese success in Korea made him look bad, and arguably helped him lose to Eisenhower in 1952, doesn't mean that the win in Japan wasn't significantly helpful earlier in his career. All it really tells us is that distant successes matter much less than recent failures. For GHW Bush, he probably got full credit for freeing Kuwaitis, which, unfortunately for him, wasn't really that much credit in the mind of the average Americans.

    IOW, I am not sold that military wins are, generically, unimportant, at least not sold based on Truman's failure in 1952 or Bush's in 1992. Rather, I think military wins are independent variables that are, (variably), impactful, but superseded by other independent variables as circumstances dictate.

  8. (I should acknowledge that Skinner was arguing that the win in Japan didn't help Truman as the Dems lost Congress in 1946. So while Truman himself won his next election, he did lose the legislative branch not long after V-J day.

    This raises an interesting question, certainly beyond my pay grade, about whether certain national events can be expected to be predictive of local Congressional races. I've probably begged the question, but I could convince myself that winning a war might provide coattails in a national executive election, but less so in a Congressional race, since your Congressman/woman didn't prosecute the war and thus deserves little credit for it).

  9. National events are predictive of local congressional races, but the effects are both indirect and direct.
    The indirect effects are the biggest ones. Namely, in 1974, any Republican with half a brain decided it was a bad year to try to get elected, and those in Congress in tenuous seats decided discretion was the better part of valor and quit. Thus, Democrats won many seats largely because their opponents were simply unelectable boobs. The same story can be told for both sides to greater or lesser degrees: the overall political environment strongly affects candidate quality, which strongly affects election results.
    The "direct" effects are that when times are bad, the incumbent president's party does worse in an election, holding candidate quality constant. Thus, in 2006 and 2008, some Democrats won seats that ordinarily they shouldn't win. In 2010, those guys are going to lose, even though they should be better funded and better candidates than they were 4 years ago.

    Which effects dominate? It's a source of debate, but I tend to side with Tip O'Niell. All politics is local, and the results of each election are very predictable if you know who the candidates are and how the district voted in the last election. The wrinkle is that who the candidates are has a good bit to do with national forces. In 2010, the Democrats are having a tougher time finding polished candidates for House seats, simply because a polished candidate knows that they could either keep their current job and run under better circumstances or run and most likely lose (and be branded a "loser" to future donors, voters, and journalists). And the higher quality candidates don't get to where they are by being stupid.

    The example I like is Mark Warner dropping out of the prez race in 2006. Why did he drop out? Because Obama was clearly gaining steam, and Warner's only real hope was the "anybody but Hillary" vote, and Obama and Edwards being viable made his chances nil. Rather than waste another 16 months of his life and be branded a loser, he lived to fight another day.

  10. Excellent!

    And might I add that the President did indeed handle the Fried Chicken Flu quite poorly.

  11. On September 11, 1990, President Bush delivered a nationally televised speech to Congress that laid out his rationale for GW I. The primary reason is long forgotten, but you can find it right there in the opening paragraph:

    "Within three days, 120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia"

    Bush never spoke of that motive for war again, which I'll get to in a minute, but one has to figure that if Saddam had rolled up Saudi Arabia, it wouldn't have been long before he plowed over Jordan, Egypt, Syria, maybe Lebanon, etc. This would have been unacceptable for at least two reasons:

    1) Tiny US ally (and nuclear arms possessor) Israel would then be essentially surrounded by an extremely powerful enemy empire.

    2) Saddam rose to fame in the early 70s by being the Oil Minister who coordinated the OPEC oil shock. Imagine how much further damage to US/Western interests he might have inflicted if he essentially ruled the Sunni Arab world.

    You don't remember GW I in those terms, though. You remember it as "freeing Kuwaitis", a funny enough objective given the fact that the emirs of Kuwait were probably as brutal for the average citizen as Saddam was (and much less powerful). Bush changed the framing because, well, those assembled idiots in Congress illustrated why they richly deserve their low approval ratings by questioning Bush's judgment regarding Saddam's intention for larger regional war.

    (Funny, that. Bush's profile in the Intelligence Community is about as prolific as anyone's in history; he was the Director of the CIA when a young Saddam caused OPEC to go all cartel on us. For their part, many Congresspeople just figured out where Iraq was on a map by 9/11/90. This didn't cause those Congresspeople any self-consciousness about questioning Bush's conclusions.)

    What we're left with is a war that in the popular imagination was dedicated to freeing Kuwaitis, a funny enough objective given the fact that the emirs are as brutal to the average Kuwaiti as Saddam was (and much less powerful).

    The relevance to this conversation: perhaps all non-economic factors play a role in elections based on how they are perceived. Because Bush was forced to reframe GW I in the laughable objective of "freeing" Kuwaitis, he stripped the war of much of its gravitas.

    If the common man was thinking about the 'real' reason for that war - preventing armaggedon either wrt Israel or US/Western economic interests - might GHWB gotten more credit for it in the 1992 election?

  12. I have some disagreements about how the U.S. handled the first year of the swine flu pandemic, but they are irrelevant to your inaccurate conclusion that the government had anything to do with preventing a "horrible pandemic" perhaps "because successful government action turned it into a non-story."

    The U.S. government's main pandemic-specific action (which I strongly support) to reduce the price of the pandemic -- ordering lots of vaccine -- had very little to do with the mild nature of the pandemic. Vaccine was available too late to have much impact in the U.S.

    Our main non-pandemic specific action -- having enough ICU beds for the number of swine flu victims sick enough to need them -- turned out well as a matter of luck: If the virus had been more virulent, hospitals wouldn't have been able to treat all the severe cases, and even many less severe hospitalized cases (mostly very young children needing a day or two of IV hydration) might have died from lack of hospital resources.

    The mild virus (so far) is responsible for the mild outcome; the government's response had very little to do with it.


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