Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Oy, Politico

Alexander Burns and John F. Harris tell us that the Syria matter has exposed the "weakness" of several institutions...I'll only pay attention to the one I know best: the parties. Here's what Politico would have us believe:
The diminishment of the parties has been underway for years, fueled by the rise of outside groups and politicians who don’t depend on their parties for money and influence. 
This is...exactly backwards. The parties are very strong and have been getting stronger. The "outside" groups are mostly party-aligned groups, organized outside of formal party organizations but tightly connected to party networks; Members of Congress are far less independent of their parties than they were twenty or forty years ago. They are elected by mostly party-connected campaigns, with party-connected money and other resources.
This reality is the main reason Washington has been paralyzed in recent years — neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Obama has any confidence they could bring their own parties along on a deal over the budget, entitlements or other domestic issues.
The parties are so strong that individual politicians -- including presidents and chamber leadership -- are tightly constrained, and cannot do much freelancing.
But the very real possibility that these leaders can’t summon enough followers to produce a majority to authorize force in Syria - particularly in response to something as repugnant as the alleged use of chemical weapons - puts the reality of that weakness in a stark new light.
Syria is, at the very least, complicated...but there are at least two ways to look at it that show party strength. One: Syria shows the clear weakness of the apartisan foreign policy establishment when faced with the strength of the parties. Two: Syria shows the weakness of nominal leaders against their parties when they try to go against party priorities -- on the Democratic side the antiwar priority, and on the Republican side the antiObama priority.
When George W. Bush asked the Hill to authorize the war in Iraq, only six Republicans in all of Congress voted against his request. On Syria, Obama lost two Democrats – Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico – in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alone (in addition, Ed Markey of Massachusetts voted present.)
It's just not a comparison that means anything. Nor does "strong party" mean that the president's party will automatically do whatever the White House wants. A better analogy was when George W. Bush sought to put a personal choice, rather than a party choice, on the Supreme Court; when his selection was laughed off by Republicans, that was a party victory, even though it was a presidential defeat. We simply can't judge party strength by compliance with the president's wishes.
It’s a stark illustration of how far party discipline has decayed that a measure supported by Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces such uncertain prospects for passage. Indeed, party leaders have almost emphasized their lack of leverage in pressing for passage of the White House-backed resolution.
Party cohesion in Congress is at record levels! Syria is, to be sure, different. But focusing on the odd dynamics of the Syria (prospective, remember) vote while ignoring all the other votes is a pretty odd way of determining how strong the parties are.

Look: the obvious thing about parties, which Burns and Harris surely must know, is that it's absolutely impossible to discuss anything about the Syria vote in Congress without primarily thinking about the parties. We all know that. We all talk about it like that. If we're thinking, say, about what Mitch McConnell will do (he declared against the resolution today), we're talking almost completely about a party story. Every story you've read about the Congressional reaction is basically a party story -- look at the way that reporters (quite rightly) separate out Democrats and Republicans, and discuss how they're coming to decisions separately. Because most Democrats face one set of cross-pressures; most Republicans face a different set. Those are party stories, and they matter so much because our parties are so strong.

Or consider the big exception in those Congressional stories: John McCain. McCain really isn't (primarily) constrained by party; he seems to be constrained mainly by his own whims and prejudices. Here's the thing: when parties are weak, Congress is absolutely full of McCains. That's pretty much what Congress was like in much of the mid-20th century. Indeed, it's not just Congress; presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter often placed either their own personal whims or the consensus of "neutral" policy experts ahead of party positions (neutral policy experts aren't actually neutral, but they aren't particularly tied to political parties -- just as the "neutral" press isn't a partisan press, but has it's own set of opinions and biases).

Syria has been an issue that confused the parties. It's an issue which causes internal cross-pressures within both parties. It is not an issue that demonstrates party weakness. For better or worse, parties thoroughly dominate US politics right now. Syria very much included.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me that people can write column inches like the Politico piece, that are completely and utterly factually incorrect, with so much passion and conviction.

    They know that they are right.... and yet they are completely wrong.

    It's so human.

  2. That voteview chart is interesting, (and I suspect that all the pros have long since known this), in that FDR's Great Society succeeded not because the Democrats were particularly liberal - they weren't! - but because the Republicans were notably not conservative.

  3. Dream on, pal.

    The Tea Party just blocked Obama's excellent Syrian adventure, after having watched his previous excellent Libyan adventure. And the Tea Party has nothing to do with your beloved Demopublican incumbent parties, who were both forced to respond to their pressure.

    If you knew much about politics, you'd know that it was UKIP in the UK which applied pressure on the 3 incumbent parties there, peeling off a sizable portion of Cameron's vote, and forcing Miliband to order his troops to desist from supporting Obama's Syria adventure, after having unanimously voted for Obama's Libyan one. That's why it went down there, because of UKIP.

    UKIP = The Tea Party, in other words. It was outside pressure wha' duhn it, not insiders.

    You lefties should study up. You don't appear to follow politics much, and studying the UK situation would do you some good. UKIP has forced Cameron to retreat on his EU love, and unfettered immigration, and at least make a (false) show of addressing both issues in a UKIP friendly manner. He knows UKIP can wreck his chances, and Miliband knows there's a sizable chunk of his supporters that will go over as well. Clegg doesn't matter, and his party will shrink to nothingness in any event.

    Third parties can demonstrate much power, even if they have no seats (and even if they aren't formally organized, as the Tea Party is showing).

    1. The real question here is: how do you manage to maintain an impermeable bubble made completely of bullshit?

    2. UKIP? You're kidding me. It may very well have been a 3rd party that was essential to the outcome in the UK. But it wasn't UKIP. Does it occur to you that Cameron's governing partners are the Lib Dems? You think maybe they might have had some influence?

      UKIP? That's hilarious.

    3. The Lib Dumbs voted for Obama's excellent Libyan adventure, lad. Clegg, teh Lib Dumbs Deputy Prime Minister, made the passionate closing remarks in support of it, minutes before it was voted down.

      It was UKIP wha' dun it, lad. They forced Cameron's backbenchers to rebel, and forced Miliband to reject his stated position, and his previous Libyan support.

      It's UKIP that has Cameron vibrating like a tuning fork, much like the Tea Party.

      Again, you lefties really need to expand your studies, and learn about politics. It's a great big beautiful world out there.

    4. The Tea Party may be united in hating Obama, but they aren't united in foreign policy. The only group within the GOP that is united against US intervention are the libertarians, and they aren't identical to the Tea Party. As for your formulation that UKIP = Tea Party, I doubt it. The political landscape in the UK is quite different. Some similarities, lots of differences. Your bluster over your keen understanding of politics is a sham. Just to rub it in, what was your prediction for the 2012 election?

    5. Not to pile on, but your comparison of, really, almost anything on American parties to UK parties is the worst part of it.

      Not that they don't or can't have similar ideologies. But they are structurally quite different.

      Politico's piece is wrong precisely because it assumes American parties are like parliamentary parties, with top-down command structures. They aren't. They are bottom-up parties, with leaders that serve at the whim of whoever happens to be strong within the confines of the parties at that time. Not saying that American parties are somehow "better" because of this; they're just different. (In fact, I think top-down parties have a lot going for them, from a democratic (small-d) standpoint)

    6. I suppose I'll have to call a strike on this particular anon. I don't know that we have anyone here who would be offended by childish slur names against a relatively minor UK party, but that sort of language is strongly discouraged around here. So cut it out, please.

    7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10277430/Lib-Dem-president-fails-to-back-Clegg-on-Syria.html

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    9. Okay, I was pretty much convinced that this particular anon was an attempt at satire. I had to double check to see if UKIP even had any seats in the House. They don't. They have a handful in the European Parliament.

      But the leader of UKIP is claiming a "UKIP effect" on the vote. His claim is that a handful of districts with slim majorities of the leadership coalition would have gone UKIP in the next election had it not been for this effect.

      So, I see where this is coming from.

      It sounds like palaver to me. I think it'd be very difficult for UKIP to turn its council election wins into actual seats in Parliament. I REALLY can't imagine that those seats would hinge on this.

      But, anyway, not satire. Funny, nonetheless

    10. @phat, thanks for uncovering that info. However, I think the commenter (perhaps identifiable by use of "excellent adventure") has commented before. I don't think this is satire, but thanks for showing that it's nonsense.

  4. I think that the Politico view, which in a lot of ways reflects the elite view, is that parties are entities to be managed by their political leadership. In corporate parlance, the people are the stockholders, the party leadership are the CEO and senior management, and the rank and file are middle management whose job it it is to carry out the policies set by the leadership. It is a very top down, authoritarian view of the way the world should work. When things like Syria come up, it just doesn't fit with that corporate mindset.

    1. (And, as I just posted above, it's also descriptively incorrect about American parties, regardless of whether that's normatively a better or worse model than we have)

    2. Well, in addition to your comments, we can add that the reflexive "Obama is wrong" contingent has been doing backflips in the last couple of days. Essentially,

      1. When he intervened in Libya, they said he was wrong

      2. When he failed to intervene in Syria last year, they said he was wrong

      3. When he declared the use of chemical weapons to be a bright red line, they said he was wrong

      4. When he declared that Bashar had crossed the line, they said intervention was wrong

      5. When he went to Congress to discuss the matter, they said he was wrong

      6. And now, when they've found a diplomatic solution with Russia, they say he is weak.

      You can compare it to corporate structure, but they're completely post-policy in their responses to actual world situations.

    3. Some interesting observations. I'll add that the partisan hypocrisy of anti-Obama Republicans seems to work in favor of the Republicans who actually oppose Obama's actions on principle. I'm mostly thinking here of Rand Paul. It's hard to cast Paul as being on the fringe when so many Republicans voted with him.

  5. I think Vlad Putin should address the American people tonight, and tell them why he was forced to bring the foolish Obama to heel, and enable his climb down from his reckless "I've decided by myself to punish Syria for their actions because the Brits say it's OK er ooops they voted it down but wait maybe I'll wait for Congress to authorize it no wait it looks like they're not going to authorize it so I'm going to have to go bombs away no matter what they say or I'll look like an idiot but wait my approvals are dropping like a stone I can't do that but wait Vlad says he'll put out a press release stating something or another so maybe if I agree with him now I won't look like a fool anymore but everybody already knows that I'm a fool but maybe if I just l blame it all on Lurch nobody will notice."


  6. Anon was zapped (just the most recent comment, for now), but I'll take the last word, just for fun. Zapped Anon:

    "you lefties consistently reference the Tea Party as "teabaggers", as we see consistently and often on this site"

    A quick search:

    "No posts matching the query: teabagger."

    No doubt that blogspot is just using a lefty search engine (and to tell the truth it's hardly perfect, so I wouldn't be shocked if a commenter used it at some point)...

    But it's good to confirm that misclassifying Plain Blog as a "lefty" site goes along with imagining rhetoric not actually used here.

  7. I suppose I should also put a general warning in: I'm zapping an anonymous commenter; I'm not going to spend too much time on it, so I may overreach (and the spam deleter may also overreact). My apologies to other Anon commenters, but I'll renew my request to regular commenters to find themselves a handle - it makes for better conversation. I'm not going to turn off the possibility of anon commenting, but, well, please consider adopting a regular handle.

  8. I should totally leave it alone, as this is none of my business and I know nothing of what I speak, but my impression is that cults work by love bombing their targets. Its not quite the same thing as a cult, but the partisan sycophancy of which Prof. Bernstein is accused would certainly be in that direction, no?

    If he's guilty as charged, shouldn't we easily be able to produce - at least - one evaluation of Jimmy Carter that isn't pejorative? Heck, I'm no liberal, but the Carter antipathy back here even makes me feel a bit uncomfortable...I can't imagine how it makes the true believers feel.

    If this place is an outlet for liberal sycophancy, its really, really bad at it. You didn't get the Carter memo, Jonathan?

    1. CSH,

      In fairness, Carter was never particularly popular with liberals, who even during his presidency rallied to figures like Birch Bayh and Ted Kennedy. It's true that they supported him against Reagan (no real choice there) and that there wasn't enough antipathy to throw him overboard in 1980 (although that speaks to the institutional advantages of incumbency more than anything else, even if you do want to blame Kennedy's admitted failings as a primary candidate), but the sourness they had for him was real enough even in the 1970s. Even in 1979 many were saying that Carter, out of pig-headedness and lack of interest in the issues, had squandered a golden opportunity to achieve national health care and important labor legislation -- and they were probably right.

    2. Points all granted, Anastasios, though it seems to me that's precisely the stuff that makes love-bombing so powerful: nervous that your partisan association with Carter carries tremendous baggage? Don't be! We love love love him, and we love you too.

      You give our host credit for calling it like it is; I say he is a terribly unaccomplished sycophant.

    3. Whoops! Meant to say "Terribly unaccomplished in the high blogging art of sycophancy"

    4. I've always thought of Jonathan as a Partisan Actor.

      ...not that there's anything wrong with that.

      ...and some of my best friends and family are partisan actors on the left.

  9. "Oy, Politico" is making a nice run at becoming my favorite plain blog feature.

  10. Google for 'teabagger'.

    'When you take into consideration the IQ of the adverage[sic] Teabaggers it's no wounder we are being screwed'

    ' So much of modern American conservatism is based in unreality, prejudice and ignorance - one need only look at the willful delusion leading into the Iraq invasion, birthers, 12ers, teabaggers to see it all in action.'

    1. OK, my googling skills leave something to be desired.

      OTOH: that's four citations from comments, over four years. And one is by a commenter who has had a strike called, by me, for partisan/disrespectful rhetoric. So unless there are far more than that...

    2. And there's of course the distinction that a term like "teabagger", while obviously disrespectful, came into use because early leaders of the movement did in fact call themselves such until they rather hilariously discovered its more common meaning. I don't consider it on par with idiotic terms like "Dumbocrats" or "Repukelicans", though of course it's not a term conducive to constructive debate and thus should correctly not be used in a forum such as this.

    3. Ok, this is the first time I've felt anything like a tech guru... When I do an advanced google search of "teabagger," limited to the domain http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com, I get eight hits. Not that it means anything.

      "...came into use because early leaders of the movement did in fact call themselves such until they rather hilariously discovered its more common meaning."

      I think that's a liberal myth. It's true only if you define "early leaders of the movement" as some anonymous guy with a sign.

  11. I don't think Syria is proof that parties are becoming weaker (if anything, it's the exception that proves the rule in this regard). But I also don't think that it's primarily explainable by partisan dynamics. Yes, there is a strong anti-Obama pressure in the GOP. But on the Democratic side there is an equal, if not greater, pro-Obama pressure. Clearly, many Democratic lawmakers _wanted_ to support the President, but it was more important for them to make their constituents happy.

    This is one of those rare issues in which ordinary people came to a decision on an issue without looking at it through a partisan prism. Congressmen took notice of this -- partisanship explains why there are more Republican and fewer Democratic lawmakers opposing the President's policy, but it does not explain the overall groundswell of popular opposition, which was the authentic voice of the people, mostly unorchestrated and unmediated by faction.


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