Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Indie Cred 2

What if a third-party or independent candidate actually did win the White House? After all, it's highly unlikely but not entirely impossible. Could he or she govern well?

Conor Friedersdorf makes the case. Even if one concedes that an independent president would have a tough time initiating and passing major legislation:
Imagine a president who proved particularly adept at cutting waste from the bureaucracy while improving the performance of its various departments; who vetoed the most imprudent bills that the Congress passed, and signed the most carefully crafted, necessary legislation; who proved a competent steward of foreign policy, a talented diplomat, and an adept negotiator of advantageous treaties with other nations; and whose appointees to the federal bench had above average intellect, wisdom, and integrity.
Well, yes. But here's the problem: a third-party or independent president would be in a poor position to do most of those things.

Could a third-party president do a good job of managing the bureaucracy? It's highly unlikely. The modern presidency has become a partisan presidency, in which presidents rely on partisan ties to staff the White House and the upper layers of the departments and agencies. And that's a good thing! Because the truth is that presidents have a hard time finding people to trust in those positions. Partisan ties don't just depend on loyalty; they also create incentives to people to do a good job so that they can be rewarded by the party in the future, either by moving on to more important jobs in the next administration or by going to work for party-aligned groups or think tanks.

See, any time that a president appoints someone to an executive branch job, there are at least three interests involved: those of the president, the agency, and the appointee. And while presidents should certainly be aggressive about monitoring what's happening, the truth is that they must rely on others to do much of that work, and they can't necessarily rely on those others, either. Partisanship doesn't entirely solve that problem, but it at least helps to align the interests of the president and political appointees.

So you're not going to squeeze a lot of waste out of agencies if the president's appointees go native and take the side of the permanent bureaucracy. You're not going to get a lot of brilliant diplomacy out of a president if the Secretary of State has his own delusions of grandeur and won't stay on the same page as her. And that's putting aside the severe problem of getting people confirmed in the Senate, a problem that might be even worse than it is now without having a party in Congress eager to help out a new president.


  1. Yeah but moderate third party bipartisan moderate centrist magic third party centrist postpartisan!

  2. @Anon: awesome. Truly awesome, actually LOLed.

    JB: you forgot to make the obligatory comment sneering at "I know! We'll cut waste, fraud, and abuse, and that'll balance a budget with no pain!"

  3. The most interesting part about this thought experiment with an unaligned actor in the white house is how the two parties would respond to being simultaneously out of control of the presidency.

    It seems like both parties in congress would be obsessed with courting the president's favor, if one party took a stand against the president they risk elevating their opponent's power by pushing the president over to their side. In that way, unless the president were able to be coy enough to play hard to get his entire presidency, at some point it would just devolve into the same system we have now.

  4. A few thoughts:

    1) I still think the most interesting part of a credible and strong 3rd party challenge would be watching the strategic voting on election day. We never got there with Perot because he wasn't popular enough by the time of the election, in no small part due to Stockdale. And it didn't really happen with TR in 1912, because no polling existed upon which to coordinate. But a credible 3rd part that was polling around 25-30% nationally would wreck havoc via Duverger: just like in 1856 and 1860, each state would probably become a 2 candidate race. But a centrist 3rd party would be well positioned in that case, since it could draw its natural support plus all the support of the weaker wing; in effect, the 3rd party might very well be everyone's 2nd choice. Given that strategic voting is almost completely foreign to the U.S., it could create some interesting situations.

    2) I concur about the presidency-bureacracy issues raised in this post. Even just thinking about the Grant administration --- probably the only thing even close to a non-partisan setup in the post-1828 era --- it makes my head spin when people think a non-partisan bureaucracy in the modern age wouldn't be a mess. And if that doesn't strike people, then the Ventura example should make a similar impression.

    Overall, while I agree that a 3rd party run is a longshot to be credible electorally and an even longer shot to be effective if victorious, my hunch is that a 3rd party victor would align himself with a partisan label, much as I assume TR would have tried to realign with the GOP and yank it in the progressive direction. After all, Presidents are powerful influences on parties. Not all 3rd party candidates have to be radical anti-party men; neither Douglas and Breckenridge thought of themselves that way. And, yes, they were produced by party fracture, not by anti-two party ideology, but much the same is plausible this year, if still a longshot.


  5. Friersdorf's argument is essentially that government bloat is in discretionary spending, which partisans are not good at eliminating. So when your EPA offices order their fifth big screen tv in five years, agency employees don't realize that is wasteful because Republicans run the office, and those are Republican tvs.

    Seriously, this constant meme that there remains epic low-hanging fruit of cost savings in government somehow insults the efforts of those government agents, at least over the last 50 years, clearly self-motivated to find and eliminate said low-hanging fruit, but apparently totally incompetent to do so.

    Which is not to say that there isn't massive waste in government. It just probably isn't where Friersdorf thinks. Its in budgets, especially opaque ones, which are renewed and defended annually for the sake of contingency, fiefdom or sometimes job preservation.

    The challenge for a President is to have heads of various agencies with enough loyalty to the President to attack operative-budget-level waste, but that agency head also needs enough credibility with her organization for them to go along with the (negative to their interests) plan.

    This is all extremely difficult to achieve. But there's no way in the world that a non-partisan President, with non-partisan (outsider) agency heads, would even begin to dent the problem of waste in individual agency budgets.

  6. (Quick clarification: I think I mangled terminology above. Discretionary technically refers to anything not mandatory, i.e. not entitlements et.al. So the budgets of EPA operatives are technically discretionary.

    I meant to argue 'discretionary' in the more general sense of 'optional/indulgent/transparently unnecessary'. Sorry for the confusion).

  7. I think CSH has a better take here. It is budget control, not agency control.

    And JB's partisan model for the buercracy? Very true for WH staff. Much less true for everyone else. People at DOD, State, Interior, various independet agencies are in many ways post partisan. They don't need the usual partisan blessing to advance already. There are plenty of ambitious groupees out there who would be willing to do the jobs. So I'd say a weak model of partisan control.

    Confirmation would be a bitch. Budgets would be bitch. But perhaps that would trigger a fight on why the Budget Act is broken.

  8. That Atlantic guy closed a mostly useless article with a stunning bang-on observation:

    "Perhaps we'd be better off as a nation if that person weren't expected to spend a significant amount of his time doing Congress' job, even if he or she is a Democrat or Republican, which will be the case for the foreseeable future. And maybe strengthening Congress as an institution, and addressing its most destructive pathologies, is as important to the future of America as electing the right president, even if it seems like a more daunting task."


    Obama spent his first 2 years pretty much letting Pelosi run the legislative agenda: Porkulus, Bailouts, Cap & Tax... and Baucus' crew seemed to completely write ObamaCare. And Schumer and Dodd and Frank pretty much brokered the Wall Street shangri la bill. So Obama's pretty much given us a head start on this guy's new model, which is more like the old model. It goes against the model Obama seems to view for himself as mastermind of all, and it goes against the view of many that the presidency is imperial, but it may be a healthier model overall.

    And the Tea Party appears to be addressing Congress' "most destructive pathologies" even as we speak... so maybe that part of the guy's proscriptions are underway as well.

    The President should follow the first branch of government. And that branch was placed first in the Constitution for a reason.

  9. Fair point about the quality of the bureaucracy. Of course, the independent President can do certain things -- like ensure transparency -- that would be huge improvements to the system. Then our independent President can bring home the troops... there's lots to do before we even need to worry about Congress.

  10. Obama spent his first 2 years pretty much letting Pelosi run the legislative agenda: Porkulus,

    That's the precise point where your argument explodes in a cloud of its own tendentiousness.....

  11. This proposal was already tested. Geena Davis played a nonpartisan president on TV; the series flopped and was canceled after one season. The West Wing, in which Martin Sheen played a (mostly) unapologetic liberal Democrat, was a hit and ran for seven seasons, or essentially two presidential terms.

    I'm being only partly facetious here. The problem with Commander in Chief, the Geena Davis series, was that there wasn't enough content to it to make for good drama. The Davis character was just a do-gooder with no particular agenda; she promised to appoint "the best people" to office and then pursue the good ol' "common sense" policies that we're so often told are just there waiting to solve our problems if only partisanship would somehow disappear. Her political opponents were reduced to a scheming cabal that just wanted power for its own sake, or that disliked her because she was a woman (which the series' creator, Rod Lurie, apparently mistook for a big deal, which it no longer was to viewers by 2005).

    The West Wing was better drama because, whatever its soap-opera elements, it could also deal with real issues, the kind that actually divide Americans and account for the fact that we have parties in the first place. Like the commenters above, I think it's impossible that a third-party president could stay equally unaligned with both parties once s/he started making actual decisions. In other words, I would expect the experiment to last about one season, if that.


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