Friday, September 9, 2011

Westen Again

I'm real tempted to just write: Drew Westen is wrong about everything, and Jonathan Chait is right about everything, or at least everything Westen-related.

But since that would be a little lazy, let me just address one thing that Chait skipped and then make one important point. Oh -- I should back up a bit...Westen published an awful piece in the NYT a few Sundays ago, and then some people (including Chait, and me) fired back, and now he's responding to a few of them, especially Chait.

So, Westen:
I was actually not a stranger to the workings of the Senate, having been asked by the Senate leadership to serve as a strategist to help pass Wall Street reform, which they did in record time after the disastrous 15-month health care debate.
"Record time"??? Putting aside that I suspect liberals were on balance happier with the final ACA compared to their initial hopes than they were with Dodd-Frank compared with their initial hopes...record time?

We'll start with ACA, which passed in March 2010. That's 14 months after Obama was sworn in, so it's certainly not any more than that. I'm not sure how to date the beginning of the "debate," but let's say it was after the stimulus bill passed. That makes it 13 months, not 15. Close enough? Oh well.

What about Dodd-Frank? That legislation was kicked off in June 2009, about 4 months after health care got going. I'm not sure what "record time" means, but it didn't pass in June 2009. Or July 2009. It didn't even pass the Senate at all in 2009, although it did pass the House in December. No, it didn't pass the Senate until May 2010.  The rest, though, was relatively fast; it only took two months to go through conference and then both Houses of Congress, passing in mid-July, 2010. Let's see, that would be...13 months. Or, just about exactly as long as it took to pass health care reform. Record time? I have no idea what Westen is taking about, but perhaps you can see why my initial temptation was to just say he was always wrong.

Yeah, it's maybe a little petty, but Westen himself uses that paragraph to credential himself against charges that he doesn't understand constraints on the presidency. So the idea that he horribly mangles the facts does suggest that said charges should not be dismissed out of hand.

Ah, well. I'll move on to a more serious discussion. The important point I mentioned above is about Ronald Reagan and FDR and the supposed powers of presidential rhetoric. Westen says:
The argument that great oratorical powers have little or no impact on the course of events would have come as a surprise to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who both changed American politics for decades with their capacity to reassure the American people and to offer a new vision of government -- in one case of an active government that could make people's lives better and in the other of a bloated government that was picking their pockets.
I have no idea what Reagan thought about the influence of "great oratorical powers" on the "course of events," but as far as I'm concerned there is virtually no evidence that he did any such thing. Of course, his actions while in office affected the course of events, and I'm open to the possibility that some of his presidential rhetoric affected future generations of Republicans...but where, exactly, is the evidence that Reagan's rhetoric had any effect at all? After all, if Reagan really made Americans reject "bloated government," wouldn't they have resisted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed and was instantly accepted soon after Reagan left office? As for FDR, think about what it took to get the US into the war. Hint: it wasn't his great oratorical powers. I don't want to say that the president's oratorical powers are entirely and completely useless, but it's just very, very easy to overstate the importance of that stuff.

Compared, by the way, with events and actions. You know why people accepted "an active government that could make people's lives better"? Because FDR put together things that actually did make people's lives better. Not, in most cases, because of the way he talked about it. That's why the ADA is useful to think about. It's actually a pretty big deal; young'ns might not realize this, but thirty years ago a huge number of small things that make people's lives easier (curb cuts, ramps, rails) just weren't there.

If you want to change the way Americans think about government, what you want to do is implement programs that work really well. If rhetoric helps around the margins to achieve that, especially by helping get you and like-minded people elected, fine. But it just isn't going to do much more than that.


  1. Wait, what? Is Westen bragging about financial reform? I thought Dodd-Frank was viewed as another Obama sellout. If Westen thinks financial reform is a good thing, maybe even one of Obama's "accomplishments," how does that square with his contention that Obama's first two years were devoid of same because "the 25 million people looking for a job would probably not see it that way"? Particularly in view of the fact that, if you're unemployed, the benefits of the ACA are much more tangible than the benefits of financial reform.

    Matt Yglesias (and JB, but Matt's more recent post is fresher in my mind) has talked about a "hack gap." It turns out there's no hack gap, it's just that liberal hacks concentrate their hackery on attacking other liberals, while conservative hacks alternate between apologias for whatever stupid thing whichever stupid demagogue says and attacks on liberals.

  2. I don't want to say that the president's oratorical powers are entirely and completely useless, but it's just very, very easy to overstate the importance of that stuff.

    It's also, apparently, quite easy to understate the importance of speechifying, especially when we're talking about an uncommonly skilled orator.

    Wisconsin Founders Day. Jeremiah Wright. Health care reform. Tucson. Now jobs. Time and time again, Obama has been able to turn his political fortunes around with "mere speeches".

    How many times does he have to do it before political scientists like you acknowledge that it is even possible?

  3. Andrew,

    What's your evidence that Wright/ACA/Tucson speeches changed anything?

  4. Well, I don't have any scholarly studies to refer you to, but I recall pretty vividly that Obama's campaign was flailing in the midst of the Wright scandal before he made the speech. After the speech, not so much. Same with health care: In August 2009, I recall pundits suggesting the bill was dead. Obama makes a well-received speech, and, a few months later, the ACA is law.

    Given that background, it seems like the burden of proof should be on those who claim that speeches can't change anything.

  5. Andrew, your memory is faulty. On ACA, pundits said it was dead, then he gave the speech, then after a few weeks pundits said it was dead, and so on back and forth. Attributing Senate passage in 12/09 or final passage in 3/10 to a speech in 9/09 is a major stretch. Also, the polling doesn't show it at all.

    On the Wright speech: it was in May 2008; I'm not going to go through the polling, but I strongly suspect you would find that it basically didn't do much either way. But either way, irrelevant to the question; I certainly do think that high-profile speeches can be important during nomination contests (and, yeah, I know I asked about it, so my fault there).

  6. I seem to recall that there was a significant upturn in Obama's polling after the Wright speech. (I could be wrong, but I don't feel like looking it up right now.) I can attest that it did improve my view of Obama. I never considered the Wright controversy all that important, and I was an Obama supporter before it came to light, but his handling of the situation greatly exceeded my expectations and deeply impressed me. And my sense was that I was far from alone in this reaction.

    I do agree with JB when it comes to the effect of presidential rhetoric on actual governing. No matter how pretty a speech may be, it's not the main thing driving Congressional votes. Let's not confuse campaigning with governing: it seems to me that speeches would have a greater effect on the former than the latter, because it's a situation influenced more directly by the public.

  7. I definitely think the whole Bully Pulpit concept is vastly over-stated. The example of Reagan is great, because he had been a small government guy for decades; yet what happened when he got into office? Bigger government. And he not only didn't kill Social Security and Medicare, as he had campaigned on, but actually SAVED them. And then there are all those tax increases he did. And the biggest whammy of them all: Here we are, two decades after he left office, and even his most fervent supporter has no idea what the man actually did in office! Yeah, the rhetoric sounded nice, but what did it DO?

    And of course, FDR didn't win from the podium. He won in the trenches, fighting for the legislation. And most surely, he wouldn't have gotten much passed these days either.

    Beyond that, a good speech can shake up the media a bit, but it's not going to get legislation passed. The speech last night was good, but the politics of it were far more important.

  8. It's fine to say that the impact of speeches is easily overestimated. Same goes for the impact of blogging. However, I wouldn't dismiss the impact just because it is difficult to measure.

  9. Westen is a bitter angry man who had his a$$ handed to him on Charlie Rose over his oh so stupid column in the NYT. Now he attempts to redeem himself by inventing new lies disguised as 'arguments' that he didn't have the guts to make when Fareed and Chait were schooling him on the show. His rather smug assertion that he was behind the passage of the Financial reform bill reveals a rather delusional sense of self importance. To put it short Westen doubled down on the stupid.


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