Monday, January 10, 2011

Oklahoma City

I wasn't going to get into the politics of Tucson, but when Seth Masket tweets, well, who am I to ignore him?  Seth (who by the way has the absolute best twitter name ever) asks me:
@jbplainblog Giffords:Obama :: OK City:Clinton?
Of course, in order to answer that, the first step is to understand the relationship between the Oklahoma City bombing and Bill Clinton's presidency.  On the whole, I'm going to wind up saying that to the extent that Oklahoma City mattered to Bill Clinton, I don't think that the equivalence here works. 

There are two things to look at.  One is the objective measure of Clinton's popularity, and the other is the more subjective stuff, the narrative of his presidency. 

On the first...Gallup happened to be polling just before the Oklahoma City attack, which was on April 19, 1995.  His approval rating, based on a poll taken April 17-19, was 46%.  That was a fairly typical reading for him for the six weeks ending in mid-April, which in turn was up from where he had been from August 1994 through the end of the year, in the low 40s or even high 30s on the approval question. 

Clinton did receive a rally-round-the-flag effect after the bombing, bumping up to 51% approval on the next Gallup sounding (April 21-24) and staying there, at least as far as we can tell from Gallup, for a while, scoring at 51% over May 11-14.  After that, however, the rally effect dissipated, or perhaps other events intervened, and at any rate Clinton fell back to the mid-40s range for the summer, staying there until finally rallying in mid-October. 

So the idea that Oklahoma City was an important event in the revived fortunes of Bill Clinton doesn't stand up to the numbers -- at least if what we're talking about is approval from the American public.  Clinton had already, pre-Oklahoma City, recovered from dangerous, Carter-like (or Truman-like) lows, but Oklahoma City wasn't part of how he wound up quite popular and therefore easily re-elected. 

Now, the subjective part and why it might matter. 

Richard Neustadt wrote that presidential power could be affected by both the president's reputation and by what he called "public prestige."  Prestige, for Neustadt, wasn't simple popularity.  Here, I'll quote:
Prestige, like reputation, is a subjective factor, a matter of judgment.  It works on power just as reputation does through the mechanism of anticipated reactions.  The same men [sic], Washingtonians, do the judging.  In the case of reputation they anticipate reactions from the President.  In the instance of prestige they anticipate reactions from the public.  Most members of the Washington community depend upon outsiders to support them or their interests.  The dependence may be as direct as votes, or it may be as indirect as passive toleration.  Dependent men must take account of popular reaction to their actions.  What their publics may think of them becomes a factor, therefore, in deciding how to deal with the desires of a President.  His prestige enters into that decision; their publics are part of his.  Their view from inside Washington of how outsiders view him thus affects his influence with them (Presidential Power, p. 73).
To translate that into English:

The various people who deal with the president -- Members of Congress, bureaucrats, interest group leaders,  party leaders, governors, leaders of foreign nations, and more -- themselves have some sort of constituents.  The freedom of these people, who Neustadt calls "Washingtonians," to support or oppose the president as they see fit is constrained by those constituents -- not, really, by what those constituents actually think about the president (or about the issue at hand), but by what Washingtonians believe their constituents think. 

We tend to trust polling a lot more now than they did in Neustadt's time (that is, Truman and Ike's time).   Still, there's a major subjective element to all of this.   After all, most polling, even now, is universal, and these constituencies ("publics") are specific.  The NRA lobbyist isn't constrained by what the American people think of Barack Obama; he or she is constrained by what NRA members think of Obama, and Gallup can't really answer that.  Moreover, there are times when, for whatever reason, Washingtonians appear to trust their own informal methods and distrust the polls -- I suspect that a lot of Washingtonians in 1998 simply didn't believe the polls that Bill Clinton was very popular.

Back to 1995.  Yes, Clinton's approval ratings had stabilized at a higher rate than his deepest lows by the time of the Oklahoma City bombing.  And yet, as I've written before, subjectively by all accounts the 1994 election debacle hit Democrats really hard.   I think it's reasonable to point to Oklahoma City as an important part of getting over the despair and hopelessness that elite Democrats felt that winter.  Perhaps it would have happened anyway; the gloom was, to a large extent, out of proportion to the reality of their situation.  But whether or not something else would have happened, what did happen was the bombing, and the initial rally effect, and at least as I remember it a new sense among Democrats that the normal rules of politics were restored, that sticking with Bill Clinton in 1996 made sense, and that the Democratic Party and liberals in general were not, after all, doomed. 

Before moving on to 2011, I want to say something about what I called, there, the "normal rules of politics."  One of my favorite pieces of political science is Richard Brody's finding that rally effects on presidential approval depend not on the success or failure of the event, or anything the president does, but on what the out-party says.  If the out-party treats the event as a national crisis over which we all stand behind the president and his actions, then a rally effect happens; if they immediately take to criticizing the president, as they normally do whenever he does things, then no rally.  I've always wondered whether Republicans, at least, had read that article and taken it to heart -- thus the immediate criticism of Barack Obama after the various foiled terrorism attempts during his presidency.  What prevents the out-party from just always, automatically, attacking the president no matter what he does?  Well, I would guess that sometimes, an event -- such as the Oklahoma City bombings -- elicits an immediate uncalculated reaction of national unity, even from the most cynical politician.  Beyond that, however, politicians are normally afraid of being seen as overly partisan, overly negative, or even unpatriotic, and they may therefore feel that it's safer, after some emotional event, to avoid appearing to act as partisans.  When I say that Oklahoma City reassured Democrats that the normal rules of politics were restored, that's what I mean; in April 1995, perhaps for the first time, a lot of Republican politicians and other opinion leaders suddenly treated Bill Clinton as if he was President of the United States of America, and not a draft-dodging hippy usurper with a suspicious number of ties to drug dealers and murders. 

Now, finally, for Barack Obama and Tucson.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Barack Obama received a bit of a rally effect, which could push his approval ratings a bit over 50% (while he hit 50% exactly last week, he's been in the mid-to-high 40s recently overall).  If so, however, that's not likely to last.

Will it have a similar effect on his more subjective standing?  I really don't think so, mainly because I don't really think that Obama or the Democrats are in need of a similar shot of confidence.  I suspect that if you polled Democratic politicians, operatives, and other insiders last week, you would have found that a majority believed that Obama would be re-elected.  Now, I don't think Democrats are especially confident of retaking the House of Representatives, but I don't think anyone within the mainstream of the party believes that the 2010 elections signaled the long-term demise of the party, or the beginnings of a long-term conservative realignment.  So I guess I would ask: which Washingtonians are going to believe themselves differently constrained as a consequence of the Tucson massacre?  I think the answer is that, for a short while, most politicians are going to feel constrained to use less vitriolic language, but other than that I don't think much of anything will happen.  Turning back to Neustadt: what I think was the case in 1995 was that a bunch of Washingtonians, especially Democrats but others as well, had a disconnect between what their constituents actually thought about Bill Clinton and the Democrats and what they believed their constituents thought.  Oklahoma City was a part of the process of reconciling those things.  I don't think there's a similar disconnect today, and so I don't expect any similar process.


  1. Very good survey of the issue. I think I agree in broad strokes, but here's some disorganized, probably uninteresting thoughts...

    "subjectively by all accounts the 1994 election debacle hit Democrats really hard"

    Right, and I think it's clear now that 2010 hasn't hit these Democrats nearly as hard. Not only did the push ahead with an active Lame-Duck Agenda, but Pelosi's defiance and the Dem campaign to fight HCR repeal indicate that the Dems left in Washington don't think they've lost the bead on the national conversation. Maybe they're right, maybe not, but it doesn't seem like they need to be convinced that Obama and his agenda are worth fighting for.

    "If the out-party treats the event as a national crisis over which we all stand behind the president and his actions, then a rally effect happens; if they immediately take to criticizing the president, as they normally do whenever he does things, then no rally."

    To offer a prediction- I rather suspect Republicans won't take to criticizing Obama right away, if only because any way to blame him for this doesn't pass the straight-face test. At the same time, though, I can't really see much significant rallying, if only because I don't see a real place for the President in this situation, and I doubt he'll just insert himself into it. So I don't really see much effect.

    The way I'd be wrong is if we get a somewhat prolonged period of more sedate politics. Calmer rhetoric- along with some workable compromises in Congress- could seem a lot like Obama fulfilling his "post partisan" promise (which was always kind of bullshit, but in absence of a clearly recovering economy, hurting him nonetheless). There's no way we're going to get calmer rhetoric for very long, but even a couple months could make Obama seem a lot more capable.

    "in April 1995, perhaps for the first time, a lot of Republican politicians and other opinion leaders suddenly treated Bill Clinton as if he was President of the United States of America, and not a draft-dodging hippy usurper with a suspicious number of ties to drug dealers and murders."

    What's odd is, for all the blathering of the Tea Party types, Republican Congressional Leaders already treat Obama that way. Almost all of them have acknowledged that he sets the agenda. But there's quite a wide disconnect between John Boehner and a lot of the people who worked to make him Speaker. I don't think the Tea Party types have really accepted any legitimacy, even if Congress has.

  2. Wow. This is a phenomenal post. Is there a link to the cited paper that isn't behind an academic firewall? The conclusion is fascinating.

  3. Thanks for this. Excellent, informative post on an issue I've been wondering about.

  4. Do you think the fallout of Tucson will effect Republicans more than it will Obama or the Democrats? It seems like, with the news totally consumed with the tragedy, the momentum that the Republicans were riding as they entered their first few weeks in control of the House has suddenly drained away. Do you think there's a danger that the political circus of the health care repeal vote and the debt ceiling game of chicken will, post-Tucson, leave a bad taste in voters' mouths?

  5. Thanks everyone for the kind words.


    No, I don't think it'll do much in that way. I suspect that Boehner will be more than happy to take his health care vote with fewer people listening. As for debt ceiling, that's still a couple of months away (at least; we could easily see a 30 day extension to start with), and by then I expect Tucson to be mostly old news. If anything, it'll help Boehner's negotiating position if his new Members are more careful in what they say.

  6. "I suspect that Boehner will be more than happy to take his health care vote with fewer people listening"

    I dunno; I mean, the thing is, it's only a symbolic vote anyway, and don't symbols work a lot better if people are watching? Yeah, sure, the people who really care will be watching either way, but it seems to me that the situation he wants to avoid is, say, a year from now, 18 months from now, the conservative base having a laundry list of things he didn't deliver, and him not having credible evidence that he tried, he really tried, but that dastardly Obama! They're going to have that laundry list no matter what (he just CAN'T deliver what they want with Obama in the White House, and he's already giving up on big chunks of it), but he's probably in worse shape if HCR Repeal is more of a vote snuck in between major events, rather than the kind of apocalyptic battle he was promising last week.

    But of course, this is all that symbolic/subjective "narrative" politics that is really hard- and probably useless- to measure.


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

Who links to my website?