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September 03, 2009

Of Presidents, Politics, Perspective, and Pendulums

Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our
careful wives, our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing.

- Henry V, Act 4, Scene 10

A few months ago I took issue with what I continue to believe were overly emotional reactions to November's election. If you'll think back, at the time pundits of all political persuasions peered deeply into their crystal balls searching for telltale signs and portents lurking in yesterday's belly button fuzz. The result was a slew of hyperbolic and poorly argued assertions that, in light of current poll numbers, now seem a tad overwrought:

- Obama's stunning victory heralded the End of Conservatism! (Dem)

- RINOs are to blame for our loss! Therefore they must be purged from the party and their firstborn sons strangled in their cribs, lest they breed more of their insipid kind (Rep)

- George Bush was to blame for Obama's victory (Everyone)

- The untoward notion that conservatives might be forced to [gasp!] share power with progressives from time to time justified the abandonment of our ethical principles. The only way to regain the White House was to play dirty (way too many Republicans)

- Serves 'em right! Republicans are reaping the consequences of having played dirty for 8 years (Dem)

In an effort to temper all this apocalyptic rhetoric with a little historical perspective, I decided to take a look at the history of Presidential power sharing over the last century or so:

Our own history can provide valuable perspective on our present difficulties. Over the last half century or so, Republicans have controlled the White House by a 3-2 margin. But more importantly, over the last half century there has been only one case in which the same party held the White House three terms in a row. Why are conservatives feeding the frankly hysterical notion that a typical and not unexpected turnover of power justifies the abandonment of our principles?

power_sharing.jpg

Jim Lindgren has an interesting post up in which he points out that while there's nothing new about the urge to blame the ruling party when the balance of power shifts, election data provides a much more plausible explanation: a phenomenon he calls The Lightening Rod effect.

In the summer of 2006, when some legal scholars feared that President Bush and the Republicans were so powerful that Bush had a king-like status, Steve Calabresi and I published a comment in the Yale Law Journal that pointed out that the existing political science literature had understated the degree to which there typically was a backlash against the party of the president. We showed that the usual erosion of support extended, not just to seats in the House and Senate, but to the states.

When one adds all gubernatorial races to the analysis, as we do in Figures 1 and 2, backlash against the President’s party in state races during a President’s term is actually stronger overall than the coattail effect in the presidential election year. To be more specific, we find that four years after a party wins a presidential election, it holds on average three fewer statehouses than it had before it won the presidential election. Perversely, winning the presidency seems to lead very shortly to losing power in the states. Since 1932 there have been eight changes of party control of the White House (1933, 1953, 1961, 1969, 1977, 1981, 1993, and 2001). In every instance but one, the party that seized the White House held more governorships in the year before it took office than in the subsequent year it lost the presidential election. The only exception is that in 1980, Republicans held four fewer governorships than they held in 1992, immediately before the Republicans were voted out of the White House. Similarly, of the eleven Presidents since 1933, every one except two, Kennedy and Reagan, left office with fewer governorships than his party had before he took office, and Kennedy served less than three years. Figure 1 shows this pattern.

Dem_govs.jpg

During the Clinton administration, Clinton was criticized for losing so many seats in Congress and losing so many governorships. Yet that was more or less par for the course. And Calabresi and I were not at all surprised to see large Republican losses in the 2006 election (the normal losses had been avoided in 2002 by 9/11, much as the normal losses were avoided in 1962 by the Cuban missile crisis).

Now the process seems to be repeating today. President Obama's drop in popularity may be slightly larger than for most Democratic presidents early in their terms, but the process is a normal one. Further, while the contests for state governorships may be decided by local issues, the atmosphere is one in which the Democrats will be blamed for the perceived faults of Obama, yet this process is entirely normal.

Like the pattern of Presidential turnover, Jim's data demonstrate the importance of not giving in to understandable but counterproductive emotion. Political strategy ought to be informed by empirical evidence, not fear.

I believe his study shows something I've long suspected: that the popular support for Republicans or Democrats is counterbalanced by a healthy suspicion of handing either party too much power. When one party has held sway for too long, we instinctively try to "balance" the equation by voting in a counterweight from the other party. This is an intelligent hedge against what we all know of human nature: that unchecked power corrupts.

The consolation for the out-of-power party is that in time, the pendulum will swing back their way. I don't believe the vast majority of Americans are either intellectually consistent or rabidly ideological. Both parties encompass a wide spectrum of political beliefs, and moreover I think that the center of mass in the middle - the political uncommitted or swing votes - provides a natural adjustment to changing political conditions.

I've argued many times that ideological purists are unelectable under normal conditions. Our founding documents were less the result of intellectual uniformity than rational compromise: the ability to negotiate agreements under which neither party got everything they wanted but both parties got something they wanted.

Yes, things are a bit heated at the moment. Obama is attempting radical change to the fundamental relationship between citizens and government. That kind of change provokes both fear and anger in conservatives. But we would do well to watch what is happening in Congress and on the streets - voters of all political persuasions are beginning to push back.

In the end, I doubt either party's base (they're simply not numerous enough) has the ability to prevent or bring about radical change:

With Republicans essentially out of the health care picture for now, Blue Dog members from suburban and rural America said they could provide the ideological balance to the more urban members of the Democratic caucus, who are pushing for a sweeping plan of universal coverage that has drawn public criticism.

Perhaps we ought to place more trust in the common sense - and the power - of the much despised political middle grounders?

CWCID to Tigerhawk for the NY Times piece.

Posted by Cassandra at September 3, 2009 04:57 AM

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Comments

I don't know, Cass. I agree with this on an intellectual level. But working with dogs and people proves time and time again that sometimes they do things and no one can figure out why.

I assumed in January that we were entering a new Carter era. Now, I have other fears. Carter was never "Dear Leader."

For my entire married life I have been surrounded by a community of Russian emigres who fled the Soviet Union - including my own husband. It creates a certain personality, that's for sure. I've heard much from them lately, even the ones who voted for Obama (which actually wasn't very common among those I know - the Russian community views ethnicity much differently than we do)are worried. They see too many Cult of Personality parallels. And too many Americans are falling for it too easily. (digression - I think many Americans were primed to do so because of the saturation of media in our society and the worship of the celebrity who looks and talks purty but doesn't have other skills, as opposed to, say, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which featured national heroes who -purportedly- had accomplishments to be lived up to).

That is not to say that Soviet style Communism is on the verge in the United States - we are not Russia, and things would not happen that particular way with us (I could write a thesis or three on Russian worldview and personality). But it is troubling.

And it worries me.

Posted by: airforcewife at September 3, 2009 10:07 AM

I love your blog, but I'll argue that you're re-arranging the ore load on the Edmund Fitzgerald here.
If you really want to cut the the heart of the matter, tell me about the 16th & 17th Amendments, and the Federal Reserve Act that has allowed the National Debt Road Trip to be the vehicle by which this country rolls back representative democracy and replaces it with a permanent political class.
The two parties in the National Funk Congress are just for show.

Posted by: smitty at September 3, 2009 10:14 AM

Smitty, I don't argue any of this:

tell me about the 16th & 17th Amendments, and the Federal Reserve Act that has allowed the National Debt Road Trip to be the vehicle by which this country rolls back representative democracy and replaces it with a permanent political class.

But that doesn't have anything to do with the point of this post :p

Which was... [drum roll] that in recent history, it is the normal state of affairs for the Presidency to change parties after two terms, max.

So either Dems or Republicans who inferred all sorts of dramatic conclusions from a Rethug defeat that was - let's face it - entirely predictable need to get a grip.

Conservatism isn't dead yet.
People are starting to see through Obama.
A lot of Americans, in fact, have more common sense than we credit them for. Even Dems are opposing this health care hijacking.

And finally, though I know some people hate to hear this, political moderates perform a useful function in politics. We'd all love to see our personal policy preferences enshrined, but the fact of the matter is that neither party's base is numerically strong enough to elect an ideological purist single handedly.

In the end, all politicians (regardless of their affiliation) have to compromise. That happened to the Dems when Bush was in office on the NSA flap - they could have brought wiretapping to a screeching halt by refusing to fund it. But they bowed to public opinion, as all politicians do in the end :p

So, while (like AF Wife) I am very worried right now, I am not as worried as some. History contains all sorts of examples of America going off track. But when that happens, the negative consequences push us back from the brink. I don't believe it's wrong to be alarmed right now.

And I *certainly* don't believe we should submit without a fight. That's just unAmerican :)

What I'm saying is, don't despair and don't become so desperate that we abandon our principles. Fight hard and aggressively. But realize that if you continually hit below the belt, you'll alienate the only people who have the power to put you into office.

Both sides need the middle.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 3, 2009 10:28 AM

Unfortunately, smart commies get their way incrementally. They will get to the worker's paradise a nibble at a time.

"Moderates" are too often appeasers. They function via compromise and negotiation. The net result is that the Left will make some outrageous claim/demand/legislation. Moderates will rush to appease the rabid Left by "toning down" the proposal and then call it a victory of statesmanship, etc. Meanwhile, the Left still achieved half, or a third, of their agenda. Lather, rinse, repeat enough times, and the Left ultimately achieves their original objective.

Being moderate or compromising is fine when you are dealing with other reasonable people of honest and moral character. Neville Chamberlain probably would have done quite well negotiating with other fellows of his same nature and character.

Where moderates fail miserably, is when they have to face true evil or tyranny with whom there must be no compromise. Those types will play the incremental game against you, because there is never a point at which their rapacious desire for power is ever satisfied. This is why Hitler made Chamberlain look like a chump. Hitler incrementally got most of central europe by making small demands, each of which he claimed was his "last demand". He started with the Anchluss with Austria, then the Sudetenland, then the Czech half of Czechoslovakia with the Slovaks made a puppet state, then Memel, and finally parts of Poland.

The Left will never be satisfied until the USA is at least socialist, but I suspect most hide their true feelings and would support an outright Bolshevik state. You can't compromise with totalitarians, whether Hitler, Al-quaeda, or homegrown crypto-commies. Moderates are, unfortunately, duped into the appeaser role and permit the leftist incrementalism to continue.

Posted by: a former european at September 3, 2009 08:56 PM

"Moderates" are too often appeasers. They function via compromise and negotiation. The net result is that the Left will make some outrageous claim/demand/legislation. Moderates will rush to appease the rabid Left by "toning down" the proposal and then call it a victory of statesmanship, etc.

That's funny... I was just reading Yglesias and Ezra Klein making precisely the opposite argument today. The Left has an agenda, they note; the Blue Dogs don't share it. So if the Left wants something, they have to offer so many concessions that they feel they often end up with nothing like what they wanted; but the only alternative is to get nothing. The Blue Dogs (they argued) are simply free to walk away, because they didn't really want these things anyway.

From their perspective, then, the moderates are the hard-liners: they are the ones who can simply walk away from the deal. The Left are the ones who have to bid away all their chips in order to stay in the game.

Posted by: Grim at September 3, 2009 09:24 PM

I agree, Grim. This latest legislative session has been the exception to the rule for the Left -- they have gone an all-or-nothing approach as opposed to their usually successful incrementalism. I believe this is largely due to the political ineptness of Pelosi and Reid. Their overbearing, heavy-handed approach has created opposition both within and without their Party.

Posted by: a former european at September 3, 2009 11:00 PM

I just hope the opposition keeps growing. And, the 2010 mid-terms can't come fast enough, IMO. I fear that is they get certain legislation passed, it will be impossible to repeal, and then we're done-for...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 3, 2009 11:16 PM

So if the Left wants something, they have to offer so many concessions that they feel they often end up with nothing like what they wanted; but the only alternative is to get nothing. The Blue Dogs (they argued) are simply free to walk away, because they didn't really want these things anyway.

I think this is the heart and soul of representative government, Grim, and what I was trying to point out in this post.

As long as there are a significant number of folks out there who want more and bigger government and a rapidly growing population, the growth of government is inevitable. It just is.

The question then becomes, how and how much will it grow? Since small government conservatives and big government liberals are BOTH too few to enact their policy preferences without modification, the key to victory is always, always, always to win the folks in the middle.

We have to live in the world as it is -- not as we want it to be. If you want A but don't have enough votes/supporter to vote A into law, the question becomes: what do I need to offer folks who are undecided about A to support it. People don't give up something for nothing, nor should we expect them to.

In the best case, what you "offer" undecideds is a compelling argument that A is in their best interest and that they'll be better off if they support A.

If you can't make that argument convincingly, you may have to settle for A-, or just stopping B from happening. Our problem is that we suck at making the argument to self interest, and part of the reason we suck at that is that our argument to self interest assumes a voter who is willing to work hard, act responsibly, and delay immediate gratification while the other side offers policies that shield people from the consequences of their own fecklessness, paid for by someone else's dime.

We may think it's better to be free but also accountable, but there are plenty of folks who would prefer to be irresponsible on someone else's dime. To think that we can entice those folks with an argument that makes no sense to them is foolish.

It doesn't give them what they value, and we have no way to insist that they value what we want them to value. This is rocket science, but way too many conservatives don't understand this.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 4, 2009 08:37 AM

And if I may say so, the opposition to health care reform shows the danger of trying to push extreme change too fast -- even folks who would like to be irresponsible on someone else's dime are scared that the drawbacks of this plan would hurt them more than the benefits.

I think this is the most dangerous time, because if Obama comes back with a really moderate plan that will be difficult to resist. The hope is that the Democrat base pitch a hissy fit and threaten to take their balls and go home. This would be foolish of them, b/c all it would take for them to prevail is to compromise and then (as afe pointed out) slide us incrementally towards the public option once the more moderate plan is in place and people get used to it.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 4, 2009 08:41 AM

M'lady, you have, once again, described the tactic that Ronald Reagan used with so much success. Engage the opposition from the position that includes everything you want plus the kitchen sink. Negotiate with gusto, good humor, and reason. Settle for a bit less than everything you want. Yup, history shows that this approach works for either side, when either side is willing to do the work.

I don't think the uberLeft is willing, or maybe they are unable, to accept less than everything. Rather than acknowledge that the Democrat/progressive/socialists/whatever are ≤⅓ of the electorate, they imagine that they have the power, or mandate, being the preferred term du jour, to foist their failed policies (wonder where I heard that term? failed policies) on the rest of the nation.

I think their bull in the china shop ways are going to bite them in the arse, real hard, come 423 days and a wake up. They may find that they have no choice other than to take their ball and go home. I bet Venezuela would love to have 'em. Birds of a feather...

Another ray of sunshine I see peeking through the gray is that more and more folks are pay closer attention to the Fed's. As they do, I see B.O., along with his administration chock full of wacko extremists, becoming more of a threat to the Democratic party than to the nation. Funny how that seems to be working out.

Posted by: bt_the-curmudgeon_hun at September 4, 2009 09:26 AM

or paying close attention... D@^^^!# rebellious fingers. Won't do a thing I tell em.

Posted by: bt_the-curmudgeon_hun at September 4, 2009 09:32 AM

Engage the opposition from the position that includes everything you want plus the kitchen sink. Negotiate with gusto, good humor, and reason. Settle for a bit less than everything you want. Yup, history shows that this approach works for either side, when either side is willing to do the work.

And this is why I generally favor the "base" candidates, especially in the primaries over the moderates. I know I can't get everything I want, but by asking for it all, I can keep more than if I hadn't asked in the first place. Ask for +10, compromise to +5 (which is all I really expected to get anyway) is better than starting out asking for +5 and then have to settle for +1 because of the need to be seen as playing nice and "being willing to compromise and meet them half-way".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at September 4, 2009 11:29 AM

Listening to the radio this morning (WOAI out of San Antonio), one of their news reports said Pelosi was talking about "removing" the public option for immediate implementation, but placing a "trigger" into the legislation. She says that "trigger" will be pulled, and then they'll get their public option. You have to watch out for what kind of compromises you make...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 4, 2009 12:04 PM

"And this is why I generally favor the "base" candidates, especially in the primaries over the moderates. I know I can't get everything I want, but by asking for it all, I can keep more than if I hadn't asked in the first place. Ask for +10, compromise to +5 (which is all I really expected to get anyway) is better than starting out asking for +5 and then have to settle for +1 because of the need to be seen as playing nice and "being willing to compromise and meet them half-way".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at September 4, 2009 11:29 AM"

To paraphrase a fairly wealthy fellow with the best hair money can buy, 'Tis the art of the deal.

I will pour a very large amount of beer into an icy mug this evening and with it, salute YAG. *at least that is the excuse that I'll give to Walkin' Boss*

SALUTE!

Posted by: bt_the-curmudgeon_hun at September 4, 2009 02:25 PM

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