Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oy, Bai

Yeah, he's at it again.  Fortunately, Ed Kilgore is too, quickly debunking Matt Bai's latest.

The one thing that I'd emphasize that Kilgore doesn't really talk about: Congressional party leadership contests are rarely decided on ideology.  They just aren't.  Yes, Nancy Pelosi is almost certainly more liberal in her position as Member of the House than Steny Hoyer (although it's anyone's guess whether that's a matter of their deepest convictions or their constituencies), but Speaker Pelosi -- or, now, Minority Leader Pelosi -- isn't going to be significantly more liberal than Minority Leader Hoyer.  To hold that job, one has to keep the House Democratic Caucus happy, and what's going to keep the bulk of the House Democratic Caucus happy (on ideology) is being a mainstream liberal.  Anyone who wants the job will rapidly adjust their issue positions to match.

What really determines these sorts of elections is internal caucus stuff: is the Speaker (or Minority Leader) good at balancing committee action with party leadership influence; is she a good strategist; does she protect Members from tough votes as much as possible; is she a good fundraiser; and then a whole lot of interpersonal stuff, everything from whether the candidate gets along well with the caucus to scheduling.  All that, plus plenty of called in favors and logrolling.

Every time these leadership transitions come up, much of the press treats them as proxies for some larger battle.  They relegate quotations from actual Congressional insiders about how it's actually about which candidate delivered a good parking space or delivered on a family-friendly schedule or allowed a Member to cast a key vote against some important bill because she secured enough votes elsewhere to the bottom of the story, and treat them as quaint little sidebar anecdotes.  They're not.  Those anecdotes are the real story; ideology is usually (sorry) a red herring.


  1. And since the most-used measures of "ideology" can't distinguish between partisan and ideological cleavages (see Frances Lee's new book), partisan leaders, by dint of voting with the party almost all, if not all, the time, score as very ideological. So in a real sense, the 'ideology' of party leaders in a highly partisan era is a silly thing to be concerned about.

  2. Not to mention that these elections don't matter a bit in how the country sees your party in Congress. What Congress accomplishes during a session matters to the voters, but next to nobody knows or cares who Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Steny Hoyer, or Eric Cantor are. You're lucky if the average low-information swing voter knows who Joe Biden is.

  3. Thank you for pointing out the problems with Bai's article. Definitely, personal relationships and "little" favors matter for leadership races. I wouldn't quite go so far as you do, however, and say that ideology "rarely" decides congressional races. Ideology -- or at least, positions on key issues -- also matters, at least in helping explain why many (if not all) legislators will support one candidate or another. I make this case in a few studies of leadership races (see e.g. PS, Jan 2008).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?